On April 20, the Seattle School Board of Directors approved a temporary grading policy known as “A or Incomplete.” It’s mostly self-explanatory, meaning every high school student will be getting a 4.0 this spring. District officials say that while students can theoretically get an I for incomplete, they wouldn’t be handed out much and wouldn’t count towards grade-point averages in any case.
“This proposal makes a mockery of the grading system and will have negative implications for college admissions,” one parent wrote to the school board before Monday’s vote. “It sends a signal to all admissions officers that Seattle Public Schools is willing to artificially inflate student grades.”
This decision comes after weeks of confusion and frustration with Seattle Public Schools and Superintendent Denise Juneau, who announced in late March that Seattle wouldn’t be transitioning to online schooling whatsoever.
“They continue to tell us not to grade, not to give required assignments, not to take attendance,” one high-school teacher wrote to The Seattle Times. “Parents are in a total fog over the inconsistencies and lack of information from the district.”
According to the district, students will receive an A if they “remain engaged in the standards-based activities and learning assigned by their teacher(s) to the extent possible.” Students will receive an incomplete if they don’t engage “although they had the ability to do so.”
Juneau explained the reasoning behind the choice, saying, “grading has historically rewarded those students who experience privilege, and penalized others…[the shutdown] shows how arbitrary a lot of the traditional structures we have are.”
A primary goal of the school board was to ensure that no kids are unfairly punished as a result of the pandemic shutdown. Other districts in the region and across the country have adopted different grading systems to meet that goal, such as “P” grades for passing without any failing grades. However, critics of the pass/no credit system say that low-income students stand to benefit the most from earning letter grades, because they may not have access to other resources like essay tutors, SAT prep classes, and expensive summer courses.
Los Angeles schools had come up with a “hold harmless” approach in which a student’s grades can’t drop below whatever they were when schools closed in March. As an incentive to work, grades can be improved from that floor by doing online or offline assignments and tests.
It’s of note that administrators reported 97.5% of LA public school students have logged into online learning platforms. In comparison, only 71.5% of Seattle students have even made the attempt.
Some critics of the policy say that a pass on grades is actually a pass for the schools and teachers. “Giving everyone a 4.0 isn’t ‘do no harm,’ it’s handing out candy. It gooses Seattle GPAs for no reason, at least compared with peers in other school districts…it renders all Seattle GPAs effectively meaningless going ahead,” says Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat.