Factors beyond student ability and hard work likely to impact grades

When it became apparent that the 2019–20 academic year would come to a close with nearly every student in the state participating in distance learning, districts were forced to scramble to come up with fair grading policies that took into account all of the ways in which school closures would impact student learning.

Many students did not (and still do not) have access to the sort of technology and internet speed required to fully participate in online instruction; others were dealing with the sudden loss of routine, access to support services they received on campus, a safe place to be during the day, increased stress in the home, or regular, healthy school meals.

A brief released in April by the California Collaborative on District Reform sought to provide immediate information on some of the considerations and implications for equity that district and county officials should take into account when adopting grading policies.

Now, with many schools still operating through virtual models or exploring how to re-open safely and transition back to distance learning should campuses have to re-close, the factors outlined in the brief are worth highlighting once again.

“School closures and shelter-in-place guidelines in response to COVID-19 have dramatically altered the conditions in which students learn and demonstrate evidence of their learning,” wrote authors of the report — a team of researchers from the American Institutes for Research. “Without physical access to teachers, peers, and instructional resources, learning opportunities for nearly all students during school closures may be significantly curtailed.”

Impacts of the digital divide and the pandemic likely to impact student achievement

Since schools closed in spring, significant efforts have been made at the state and local levels to address the digital divide quickly so that students have access to devices and high-speed internet to connect to in their homes.

San Mateo County announced on Aug. 12 a new partnership with Ravenswood City, La Honda-Pescadero Unified, Redwood City, and Sequoia Union High school districts to quickly deploy high-speed internet access to thousands of students in rural communities and low-income households. Doing so would address inequity issues for students who need to be connected to virtual learning at the start of the school year due to the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, county officials said.

Unfortunately, there are still many low-income and rural households throughout the state that do not have this sort of access. And even if they do, it is not guaranteed that it is enough to meet the needs of children.

Access to quality distance learning opportunities is not evenly distributed among communities and subgroups of students, researchers noted. For instance, although some families and communities have multiple devices and sufficient broadband in the home to support simultaneous internet access for both adults and students, others do not.

Additionally, “even if the required technology is available, exposure to learning materials and communication with teachers will depend heavily on the comfort that students and their families have with that technology,” according to authors of the brief. “Opportunities for students to receive academic support within the home already vary widely, a dynamic whose effect will be more pronounced when their access to classroom teachers and settings also is limited.”

Finally, they concluded, psychological research has long shown that all people, children included, do not perform as well when under stress — and the stresses from layoffs, lack of child care and general uncertainty surrounding the pandemic are particularly pronounced in low-income communities.

It is important that districts continue to provide rigorous learning opportunities and hold students to high standards, but that grading policies in the 2020–21 academic year are flexible enough to allow schools to take into account the numerous difficulties that students, their families and also their teachers are currently facing as a result of COVID-19 and wildfires still burning throughout the state.