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Pandemic shakes academic standards

Schools make sweeping changes to grades and admissions—some permanent

A graduate of Chattahoochie County High School in Cusseta, Ga., in May Associated Press/Photo by Brynn Anderson (file)

Pandemic shakes academic standards

This past summer, New York City parents attended hourslong Zoom meetings to weigh in on how the city should handle next year’s admissions to selective, high-achieving public middle schools. COVID-19 had wrecked spring testing and attendance, the usual metrics.

Tuning in from living rooms and bedrooms, in 90-second intervals punctuated by tech glitches and children’s voices in the background, a stream of parents pleaded with administrators: Don’t tweak the screening standards. To increase diversity in top schools, scrap screening altogether.

When the pandemic hit last spring, schools nationwide dumped letter grades, extended deadlines, and canceled tests to cope with the sudden switch to online learning. Now in response to racial disparities and COVID-19 disruption, some families and educators are pushing to make the changes permanent.

Reformers were looking for ways to close achievement gaps in grades and test scores before the pandemic. In 2019, the College Board created a dashboard of school and neighborhood information it hoped would provide context for students’ SAT scores. It later dropped its so-called “adversity score” from the dashboard in response to criticism that it oversimplified a student’s socioeconomic status and introduced a veiled method of using race as a factor in college admissions.

The San Diego Unified School District worked for two years on a plan it unveiled this fall to address racial inequalities in grades. In 2019, African American pupils earned about 20 percent of the district’s D or F grades though they comprise just 10 percent of the student population. White students, who are about 23 percent of the student body, earned just 7 percent of total Ds and Fs. To reduce those disparities, the district decided this fall it would no longer penalize late assignment submissions or include classroom behavior in academic grades.

Michelle Burris, a fellow at the Century Foundation, said the pandemic and this summer’s protests have accelerated similar changes to grading and testing across the country. Los Angeles, which saw a 15 percent increase in students earning Ds and Fs in the fall, gave students extra weeks to make up homework. In Alton, Ill., public schools expanded the range of grades that earn a D instead of an F. Durham, N.C., public schools guaranteed all students an A on state tests that account for 20 percent of their grades. Other North Carolina schools halved the grading scale so students can’t score below 50 percent. With shouting at a board meeting in San Francisco and parent testimonies that lasted until 2 a.m. in Boston, two elite high schools dropped their entrance tests in favor of lottery admissions for next year.

These changes expire next year, but others are written to last. In October, Virginia’s Fairfax County ditched an entrance exam and $100 application fee for an elite high school in a bid to enroll more minority and poor students. Protesters gathered outside the school with signs and flags. They argued abandoning the test would decrease diversity in the 70 percent Asian student body and produce only marginal gains for black and Hispanic enrollment. Parents filed a lawsuit, but on Dec. 17, the board replaced the test with a combination of essays, grades, and interviews.

Fairfax County’s superintendent cited the pandemic and the death of George Floyd for the district’s renewed focus on racial and economic diversity.

Ian Rowe, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, blasted the changes for sidestepping problems by lowering expectations. Instead, Rowe told me, schools should assess high-scoring Black and Hispanic students and replicate their success. Similarly, rather than eliminating admissions tests, Rowe argued districts should work to improve students’ scores.

“The most important thing we can do for kids is have very high expectations,” Rowe said.

Meanwhile, in New York City, administrators announced on Dec. 18 that selective middle schools would use a lottery instead of grades and test scores to admit next year’s students. The pandemic forced this year’s change, but the city will decide in 2022 whether to stick with the lottery for good.

Esther Eaton

Esther formerly reported on politics for WORLD from Washington. She is a World Journalism Institute and Liberty University graduate and enjoys bringing her parakeets on reporting trips.


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