Just as the last months of the school year have looked different for Minnesota students, so too will many of their transcripts.
School districts are rolling out new grading policies this spring to accommodate students who may have faced challenges during distance learning.
The new policies are based on recent recommendations from the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) that no student be given a failing grade and that new grading systems and policies prioritize flexibility and equity.
The stress, anxiety and uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic and distance learning have magnified disparities for students, said Education Commissioner Mary Cathryn Ricker. "If the ways that educators are delivering education and supporting our students has completely changed, then so should the way that students are receiving feedback about their academic performance," she said.
The MDE guidance also recommends that transcripts include language indicating that grades from mid-March through the end of June reflect a time of distance learning, and that those grades should not be used to determine a student's future placement or opportunities.
Schools in the Minneapolis Public Schools district are grading all middle and high school students with a credit or no credit system. Unlike an F, receiving "no credit" won't negatively impact a student's grade-point average. And an F grade will be given only if staff have been unable to connect with the student or document that the student tried to participate in learning.
St. Paul Public Schools will continue letter grades A+ through C-. Any grade lower than a C- will be assigned a pass or in progress. A "pass" will be neutral for a student's GPA.
"We want to meet the needs of kids who are putting in tons of time and energy in earning an A in distance learning," said Darren Ginther, director of the college and career readiness office for St. Paul schools. "We also don't want to hold it against students who maybe struggled."
Kalid Ali, a junior at Como Park Senior High School in St. Paul, said he supported the changes and felt they were fair to all students. Many of his friends are immigrants, he said, and have been working more hours during this time to help their families. He has been balancing two jobs — one at a golf course and one at Target — while working to complete assignments for eight classes, including four college courses. Some of his peers have had technology issues or lacked a quiet, private space to participate in a call. Others avoided calls because they were embarrassed to have peers see their living space, he said.
"I think it has been hard and students are happy to have these options," he said.
South Washington County Schools will give each middle school student with an A through D a "pass" and any middle school student with an F a mark of "incomplete," which can be removed if a student continues to work with the teacher or takes summer classes to meet the expectations of the class. For high school students in the district, letter grades of A and B will remain the same. A "P" will be given for other passing grades and an "N" for "no grade" will be given to students who were unable to complete the course. They can then continue to work on the classwork or take summer courses.
Anoka-Hennepin schools have adopted a similar system. The grades from the third trimester will not be included in South Washington or Anoka-Hennepin students' cumulative GPA.
South Washington County Schools considered a full pass/no pass system, but heard from many parents who were concerned about recognizing students who did succeed during distance learning, said Superintendent Keith Jacobus.
Many students and parents also worried that not displaying a letter grade on a transcript could potentially hurt a student's chances at college admissions or scholarships, though college and university officials say they will consider the challenges of the last few months in any application they review.
"They can empathize with it because they've had to make similar modifications," Ginther said. "They are very understanding of this and I don't believe it will make a difference in admissions processes or scholarships, as much of that was already done before [distance learning]."
The University of Minnesota Twin Cities said it conducts a holistic review for each applicant and considers multiple factors to assess college readiness.
"The University will not penalize students for the unprecedented end to the 2020 academic year," University officials said in a statement. Pass/fail grades will be accepted and university advisers are prepared to work with students to identify the right level of coursework for them in the fall.
Though the 30 Minnesota State community and technical colleges don't have specific admission requirements regarding applicants' GPA, they are also planning to accommodate students with a wide variety of grading situations for their final semester of high school.
"Recognizing the disruption posed by the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, Minnesota State universities are committed to flexibility and working with prospective students who have received pass/fail grades this past semester," said Ron Anderson, Minnesota State senior vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.
Ali has received messages from several colleges offering support and assurance. He is considering taking a "Pass" for two classes now that he knows it won't likely affect college admissions.
"It's a relief to not worry about [a lower GPA] going into senior year," he said.