BOE Vote Unanimously on ‘Sense of Meeting’ on Pass/Fail and Letter Grades at GHS

The Greenwich Schools Board of Education met remotely for a special meeting Thursday night that included discussion of grading policy. Students have been distance learning since Greenwich Schools closed on March 13 to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The State Dept of Education suggested that Connecticut school districts move to a pass/fail grading policy.

The BOE received over 350 comments from the public on the topic, with the majority of comments in favor of maintaining the regular grading system.

College-bound Greenwich High School students had commented that pass/fail grading was not necessarily desirable. For other students and families who are struggling, the pass/fail option was attractive.

During discussion the board agreed they wanted to offer flexibility.

Kathleen Stowe said the policy governance committee voted 3 – 0 in favor of a “hybrid” policy for the 4th marking period.

She explained the default would be for students to receive a letter grade, but a pass/fail option would be available on an opt-in basis.

The pass/fail option would apply to all courses. Student would not be able to cherry-pick particular classes for pass/fail.

GHS Headmaster Ralph Mayo said he thought the hybrid policy was fair.

“We don’t want to grade students based on their home environment and what’s going on in their house. This policy will do that for us,” he said.

There was discussion about not wanting students to fail. It was noted that under the pass/fail option, there would still be an opportunity for Incompletes, where students could make up work after the marking period.

Meghan Olssen, a teacher herself, said she was concerned about what would happen to a student who might not opt in to the pass/fail, “If, God forbid, someone gets sick that they can change to pass/fail.”

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Joe Kelly said, “Some kids don’t have it as easy as others. Sometimes you’re holding them together with scotch tape. I can see them falling apart in this time of crisis. What would constitute a fail?”

Headmaster Ralph Mayo said there had been extensive outreach to students since March.

“For these kids not turning in work and not responding to staff, we’re making phone calls through guidance and the deans to get them back on track,” he said. “The majority of our students are back into the groove of distance learning. It would be difficult for a student to fail unless they don’t turn in work.”

“There are Incompletes, but we don’t want people abusing the policy,” Dr. Jones explained. “We don’t want them to think they get a pass automatically. We don’t want to lose student engagement.”

Mr. Mayo said he had recently sent teachers an email  telling them, “when in doubt, give an Incomplete so the student can make up that work and get a grade. We’re trying to be as flexible with the kids as possible. We don’t want to see anyone fail.”

Greenwich High School Guidance Director Judy Nedell said offering pass/fail as an option was fair.

“We don’t know what’s going on in everybody’s household, and we can give support to help them make a decision,” she said.

Peter Sherr said he was concerned that with a pass/fail option, some students might “take a free ride.”

“What I’m concerned about is a situation where a student who has gone all four quarters, is doing B+/A- work, they could wind up with the same GPA as a kid who took the pass/fail (option) the fourth quarter who has been doing lower level work,” Mr. Sherr said. “That can happen and it is real.”

“Let’s call a spade a spade,” he said. “Students are competing against each other for spots in a particular university.

Mr. Sherr said some larger universities are numbers-driven in their admissions.

“With University of Michigan, Penn State or UConn, it’s a numbers game so you don’t get that level of granularity,” he said. “And now there is an issue of ACT or SAT, so they’re saying, ‘We’re going to look more heavily at kids’ GPAs.'”

“We have to deal with that potential free rider problem,” Sherr continued. “These are not your free or reduced lunch kids. You would know these kids. They have all the resources in the world, but are not motivated because they are not in a structured environment.”

Karen Kowalski shared Mr. Sherr’s concerns. “Yes, there should be a hybrid approach. We don’t’ know what’s going on in these kids homes,” she said. “But, riding on Peter’s ‘free loader’ concept, someone who takes the pass fail versus those who press forward and maybe they slip and get an A- or B+, is there a way that person get a better GPA who slipped a little and got a B + and that kills their straight A average? Will the person who gets a pass/fail come out on top?” she asked.

Assistant headmaster Rick Piotrowski said, “If a student is looking to game the system, they’re bright and they’ll figure it out. Can I guarantee it’s going to be 100%? No.”

“What grade constitutes a pass?” Ms Kowalski asked.

“We haven’t looked at it yet. We were waiting for this policy to get passed first before we get into the weeds,” Mr. Mayo said.

After discussion, the eight-member board voted unanimously in favor of “a sense of the meeting” in favor of an opt-in pass/fail option. Students would receive letter grades for their courses unless they opt for pass/fail.

The board will meet next Thursday and will vote on the grading policy at that time. In the meantime administration will begin to draft the policy.

“It’s the right compromise,” Peter Bernstein said on Friday morning on WGCH about a pass/fail option. “It’s available if it’s needed.”