The Kodiak Island Borough School District amended spring 2020 grading policies for all grade levels after the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to shut down in March.
According to school administrators who spoke at the board of education meeting on Monday, the transition to online learning has benefitted some students, particularly those with highly involved parents, while causing difficulties for many others.
District administrators stopped shy of adopting a pass/fail policy, but Kodiak Middle School and Kodiak High School modified the letter grading system to a “hold harmless” policy to benefit students who would have otherwise failed or received a lower grade than expected.
“As teachers calculate their semester grades for students, they will be comparing the grade the student earned for the semester using our regular A through F grading system, and the grade the student had before spring break. Teachers will pick the higher of these two grades for the semester grade,” said KHS Principal Mel LeVan. “This holds students harmless in a sense, and does reward students who have improved their grades during the semester.”
LeVan said the modification of the grading system was essential due to disparities in students’ learning environments. However, the change did have some negative effects, incentivizing some students to invest less effort in their studies, leading to a decline in online class attendance.
“Unfortunately, our students are also smart as a group. Once they learned with this ‘hold harmless’... their grade couldn’t drop below a certain amount, teachers are reporting a pretty steep drop-off,” LeVan said.
KMS Principal Eric Andersen said the middle school elected to keep the A through D grading system, but would not give failing grades to students. Instead, students who did not hand in a sufficient amount of assignments would be given “NG” on their report card, denoting “No Grade.”
“We had great student participation in the beginning,” he said. “By the end of the second week, I believe the quote was, ‘the novelty has worn off.’ We started losing kids.”
By the fifth week of online learning, Anderson realized that a grading change was imperative.
“We started losing more and more kids, falling off the radar,” he said. “The amount of F’s were piling up.”
Andersen attributed the drop-off in student participation to “the discrepancy in home environments,” in addition to parent presence and the weather, among other factors.
“Some kids had parents helping them at home and some kids were left on their own to manage themselves. It became quite clear that we’re asking 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds to homeschool themselves in some cases and they are not developmentally ready for that,” he said.
A small percentage of students excelled in the online learning environment, but for a significant number of at-risk students, the home learning environment was “just not good.”
Andersen said middle school students who have seen a downturn in their grades since the third quarter will be graded based on their work prior to spring break, which marked the end of in-person learning.
In Kodiak’s four elementary schools, end-of-year grades will highlight student successes.
“We needed to take into account equity in accessibility to various platforms and the ability for students to connect and get the greatest learning opportunities. It was very evident to us that if we graded in a traditional way, there would be some disparity,” said Main Elementary Principal Angie Chervenak.
The elementary school grading template will have a 3-to-1 ratio between positives — “areas where students were successful” — and areas where students could work “to build skill and stamina,” Chervenak said.
Elementary school principals reported high participation in daily face-to-face online class meetups during the spring, which typically occurred in the morning hours. But they also reported very low completion of assignments.
North Star Elementary School Principal Kerry Irons reported that 75% of students completed around 70% of work expectations. Chervenak said that around 60% of Main Elementary students completed the same amount of work. Chervenak said the percentage of students completing every single assignment was in the single digits.
“It seems really clear that the kids need those connections with their classmates and their teachers,” Irons said. “We have much less consistent work completion and engagement in the actual academic tasks that teachers have developed and assigned to their students.”
Administrators said students will likely experience greater regression than during a typical year due to the difficulties of online learning. But measuring regression will be challenging without the typical assessments administered to students at the conclusion of the school year.
“I do believe a lot has been lost over this period of time,” Andersen said. “It’s hard to tell percentages at this point.”
Board of Education Chair Duncan Fields expressed concern that without spring assessments, it will be unclear how to move forward with learning in the fall.
Chervenak suggested the district could provide assessments at the beginning of next year to give a guidepost for student learning retention.
“And then you start working to push them up to meet grade level standards,” she said.