How Schools Are Handling Promotion and Grades At the End Of the Year

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When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools across America were in agreement about one thing: keeping students safe. In a matter of weeks, and in some cases days, most had moved to online classes and canceled all in-person school activities. But as the school year comes to a close, parents and kids are wondering how students will be graded, and how educators will determine who, if anyone, needs to be held back to repeat a grade.

With so much stress being reported with distance learning overall—not to mention inequities in students’ access to technology and internet service, which deeply affect their ability to participate in e-learning—would it better to do away with assessments altogether and simply use the grades students had at the time schools closed, switch to a pass/fail system, or do traditional grades still have an important role to play in education?

The answers are far from simple. There is no national policy governing how schools should handle grades. Each state and school district is free to make these decisions on their own, which can be pretty confusing, especially if you have children in schools in different districts or grade levels. Making matters more complicated, even when state education departments issue guidance, districts can decide for themselves how they want to proceed.

That said, our research found three primary ways that most school districts are choosing to grade students this year:

  • Regular Grades — As it was pre-pandemic for most students, these are based on all the grades the student has completed by the end of the term, averaged together. This includes the work performed prior to the quarantine as well as during it. For this to work, every student must have access to a computer and the internet, hence why some districts are moving away from letter grades altogether.
  • Credit/No Credit or Pass/Fail — This breaks each student’s performance down to determine whether they completed enough work at an acceptable level, either before the quarantine took effect, or both before and after if the student had the tools to perform distance learning. 
  • Hybrid Approach — Many schools have adopted a hybrid approach to grading that combines letter grades with a pass/fail system. For example, some students in Michigan can earn an A, B, credit, or incomplete during distance learning, with their e-learning grades reflecting the number of assignments completed and the level of understanding the student demonstrates. Those grades are averaged with the third quarter grades (which they earned before schools closed) to determine their final semester grade.
Chart outlining how Quarter 4 (Q4) grades can combine with Quarter 3 (Q3) grades in Michigan, to either raise or lower the overall semester grade.

North Carolina’s Board of Education decided to forego letter grades this year and is opting for a pass/fail designation, while Ohio’s Board of Education is leaving it up to each local school district to decide. Clearly, there’s no one way to handle this question.

Many parents and students say online classes shouldn’t be judged the same as live classes. They say they’re a poor substitute, plus the uncertainty and chaos surrounding distance learning overall make it difficult for many to keep up, especially those with limited resources—some students don’t have access to computers or the internet, making online learning impossible. As a result, some schools are distributing homework packets via mail or at pickup sites. When the classes being taught aren’t mandatory, they’re being labeled “enrichment-based.” 

Promotion to the next grade level depends on which of the above scenarios your school district decides to follow—unless your child is a high school student who needed to pass state exams to move forward. Since state exams normally take place toward the end of the school year, most were canceled, and many states and school districts have decided to allow students to be promoted to the next grade (or graduate) without them. In some states like Florida, governors are allowing parents the option to decide if their child should repeat the same grade next year.

The best way to know what your child’s school is doing is to reach out to your county school district. All have websites and phone numbers available for parents. Even if your child is not required to do distance learning, there are many free resources available for parents to help students continue their education. Just remember that everyone is in the same boat—and no one is expecting you to become a world-class teacher, nor is your child expected to be a world-class distance learning student, either. Follow the guidance of your school district, do the best you can, and chances are your child—and you—will be just fine. 

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.