This is an unprecedented time, as the world is reeling from this pandemic. Organizations and institutions everywhere are having to quickly change their policies, including our school. Distance learning was completely new territory for the administration and they had to pivot rapidly when we left the traditional classroom on March 13th. Many questions have been raised about these changes, particularly the question of how grading will work. Earlier this month, Ms. McKenna released the School’s new grading directive to the students, and I had the pleasure of speaking with her and Ms. Sarkar to get an inside look into how these decisions were made.
The grading directive team consisted of the Division and Assistant Division Heads (Middle School and Upper School), Dean of Academic Community (Ms. Sarkar), and the Director of Diversity and Inclusion (Ms. Tucker), reporting to deans and departments for feedback. They also conducted lots of research from local peer schools, Challenge Success, IDEX data, DEI directors as well as gaining informal and unsolicited feedback from parents and students.
As noted in the school-wide email, there are three guiding and framing principles of feedback, flexibility, and empathy. McKenna expanded on this, saying, “We are acutely aware of the unique situation we are in and we are trying to figure out a philosophy around grading that honors the work and the program that we are putting in place, the efforts that students are making to remain engaged, and also recognizes the difficulties of moving to distance learning for adults, students, and teachers.” This is a struggle shared by both the faculty and the students. Other complications that come with dislocation include stress, interruptions, distractions, other responsibilities, concern for loved ones, and the overall climate of uncertainty. “It is tough,” McKenna remarks, “We wish we were not in this situation. I know that students feel that way. I want to reassure them that we 100 percent sympathize and agree.”
Many different opinions have been expressed towards a new grading directive from students, teachers, and parents. McKenna acknowledges this and touches on the School’s approach to all the conflicting ideas, saying, “We are looking broadly at that tension, trying to find some sort of solution that allows for flexibility, that still gives students feedback, and that is empathetic at the core about how this is a struggle… It is not simple and there are many different and real perspectives that are based on everyone’s unique position. The process has been to try to leverage as much research as we can into a very short time frame.” Ms. Sarkar added to this, saying, “I want to say that we are a unique school. Different from say College Prep or Bishop O’ Dowd; we are a K-12 school. We have students and family that are experiencing our program at all three divisions. There are so many pieces of information, and we are trying to make our philosophy and our experience for families consistent.”
Despite this concern, Sarkar adds that, “Independent schools have an advantage because we have college counseling offices that have deep relationships with the colleges.” Mckenna expands on this, saying, “I would like to extend that beyond the college counseling office to say that there are many things that we are lucky for and privileged about. We are a small community and we can act more nimbly and individuate in a way that big public schools cannot. We know our students and our students have a network of relationships through teachers, advisors, deans, etc. We have the ability to target and support people not just as a school but as individual students.”
As we know, the administration has decided to pursue a blended option of traditional grades and a pass or fail system for students whose grades significantly drop. They also made the decision to treat the latest interims as a progress grade. Furthermore, McKenna confirmed that the School will not be holding traditional finals. Instead, they are looking for “different things in the fourth quarter given the circumstances. Smaller, more frequent, lower-stakes ways of showing engagement with the material and the skills that we are trying to maintain and foster. That looks different depending on the discipline” (Mckenna).
Coincidently, the School has been critically looking at assessment for a while. Sarkar touches on this, saying, “This is in a strange way to our work in our strategic plan that is asking us to innovate around some of these things. Our teachers understood it at a theoretical level. We have been talking about it with the implementation of our strategic plan. That is another advantage.” McKenna adds, “We are at an important crossroads, not just as a school but as a country in what education looks like.” For example, many colleges around the U.S. are debating the importance of standardized testing and our school is moving away from APs. With this disruption, McKenna views it as an opportunity for innovation. “We can’t do it perfectly, that would be unrealistic, but we are doing it with as much intention and attempt to be not just reactive but strategic” (McKenna).
Another concern for high schoolers is what the fall semester will look like. With the reduced content due to remote learning, will there be some remedial catchup in the fall, especially for cumulative classes? Sarkar addresses this, saying, “Two things are at play. One, we recognize that the content we covered in this fourth quarter is not what we would have normally done, so we will pick up in August knowing where we ended. At some basic level, the curriculum will shift. But I am actually hoping for some reassessment of what is important to deliver in the curriculum. We will make sure our students are not at a disadvantage.”
For any current juniors concerned about the college process, Kora Shin, the Associate Director of College Counseling, also gives some insight into how the college process will change, saying, “We’re confident the colleges will show great empathy and humanity to students with their process given everything going on globally. Schools have already started to change their testing policies for the grades most impacted by this in their college process (ie. Chapman, Univ of Oregon, Tufts, Scripps, Redlands, Boston University, to name a few) and will also demonstrate flexibility and understanding around the different grading shifts/changes that are happening at schools around the U.S. and the world.”
If you have questions about your grades or grading in general, McKenna encourages students to go directly and respectfully to the teacher, and if that doesn’t seem comfortable, to turn to other supportive people on campus like advisors or deans. Sarkar strongly emphasizes the importance and presence of a strong support system that is available to every student, saying, “We think every student has a complete robust support team that includes advisor, dean, Ms. McKenna, Mr. Thiermann, the learning specialists, the counselor, the dean of equity and inclusion, the CCE director. Every student has this team holding them up.” This is a hard time, so please reach out to the incredible support team around you if you need help.