School Board President Questions ELPS No-Grade Pandemic Policy

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Raymond Holt for ELi

ELPS Board President Erin Graham at the Jan. 27, 2020, meeting.

The President of East Lansing Public School’s Board of Education is questioning the district administration’s decision to not give students a chance to have letter grades on their transcripts for the second semester of this school year.

Board President Erin Graham has collected data from around the country that she says suggests this policy may put many ELPS students at a serious disadvantage.

But Graham has been met with firm opposition by the Vice President of the Board, Terah Chambers, Superintendent Dori Leyko, and Director of Curriculum Glenn Mitcham. Those three believe the principle of equity requires the approach the district is using – assigning every student either a “CR” (for credit) or “I” (for incomplete) – given the stressors of the public health emergency.

Is ELPS avoiding harm or causing harm?

In advance of last Thursday’s Academic and Technology Committee meeting, Graham shared evidence she had collected showing ELPS to be an outlier in its grading policy during the pandemic. Graham’s research at that point showed that at least 30 percent of school districts across the U.S. are promising letter grades, with many more coming on board each day.

Graham’s data suggests that the majority of school districts may ultimately decide to award letter grades, following the lead of the largest school districts in the nation and several statewide mandates outside Michigan. She showed that there are many school districts and even entire states requiring the issuing of letter grades at least for the third marking period, if not the fourth. (ELPS had completed seven of nine weeks of its third marking period before going remote.)

Several districts within the Ingham Intermediate School District are awarding letter grades. Many that are giving grades are allowing students to make up missed work from the third marking period to raise their grades. Some districts are using an A-C scale (so that none fail), while others are awarding students either an “A” (for passing) or “no credit.”

In light of these comparisons, Graham posed a challenge: “With new information coming to light, I am asking us to consider whether the policy continues to be both a) equitable and b) aligned with the principle of do no educational harm.”

Graham wanted to at least see students given the option of having their grades “unmasked,” so that they could show colleges, employers, military recruiters, and the like what they had earned if they wanted to show them.

Parents also question the system

Several parents attended the remote meeting by phone to second Graham’s concerns, including Liesel Carlson, Kim Henderson, and Debbie Walton. They were concerned that the ELPS policy will especially hurt juniors and seniors who have worked hard to improve their grades for scholarships, college applications, and job opportunities.

Henderson said her daughter, a junior, had worked hard to earn the grades she received, “and this will hurt her when she goes to get scholarships.”

Walton agreed, saying she was worried about ELPS students competing against students from around the U.S. for college admissions and scholarships. Walton believes that colleges want more information on students’ performance, not less. She asked why students should be allowed to make up work for a letter grade.

The district administration believes equity is not attainable during a stay-at-home order

But responding to these challenges, Director of Curriculum Glenn Mitcham said he had yet to find any scholarship or admissions committee that would see this period as typical, and he said that transcripts would be notated to reflect the stay-at-home period.

ELPS Director of Curriculum Glenn Mitcham at the Jan. 27, 2020, School Board meeting. (Photo by Raymond Holt for ELi)

He suggested that such committees would view a “credit/incomplete” system more favorably than a system that gives an “A” to every student without distinguishing their performances.

Mitcham also said that East Lansing Public Schools teachers would categorically oppose a system in which all students who passed received an A because it would lack integrity. Said Mitcham, if this system were implemented, “The teachers will revolt on us.”

Superintendent Leyko stated she was proud to be an outlier in this instance, saying it represented the commitment of ELPS to issues of “equity.”

Using the credit/incomplete scale leveled the playing field for all students, Leyko said. She noted that some students tend to spend the last two weeks of a marking period working with teachers to submit outstanding assignments, and they didn’t have the chance to do that.

Mitcham agreed, stating that “face-to-face [education] is an equalizer. If you allow kids to show grades, that only advantages those with more resources, in my opinion.”

Differing views of what promotes “equity”

School Board Vice President Chambers stood with Mitcham and Leyko on this issue, arguing that unmasking grades from before the stay-at-home orders “privileged students who got assignments in before the last two weeks of semester.” Students who did not get assignments in would not want their grades unmasked. She said this was an equity issue and that offering grades or unmasking invited “opportunity hoarding.”

But Graham and Chris Martin, who serves on the Board as Secretary, expressed a concern that prohibiting unmasking of grades might make students more dependent on letters of recommendation, something that more privileged students have a better shot of arranging.

Superintendent Dori Leyko (left) and Board Secretary Chris Martin at the Jan. 27, 2020, School Board meeting. (Photo by Raymond Holt for ELi)

Martin also pointed out that some teachers may leave, and students therefore might not receive letters. He questioned whether the guidance staff could keep up with the demand of letters, although Mitcham said that, while it would be considerable work, the staff should be able to handle it.

Is this an issue worth fighting over?

About two hours into the unusually tense meeting, Chambers questioned the whole discussion, suggesting that we are all facing much more pressing issues with record levels of unemployment and food insecurity. She suggested the conversation was focusing on the privileged.

ELPS Board Vice President Terah Chambers at the Jan. 27, 2020, School Board meeting. (Photo by Raymond Holt for ELi)

But Graham argued that a lack of a letter grade could affect more than college-bound students, affecting students who may want to join the military or take on entry-level positions in health care. In these cases, grades could determine eligibility, paygrade, and benefits, and disadvantages could compound over time.

Noting Mitcham’s report earlier in the meeting that while elementary and middle school students appears to be engaging at a good rate while high school students are not, Graham wondered aloud whether part of the reason high schoolers are disengaged is that they know performance doesn’t matter to grading now.

With this, Chambers sharply disagreed, saying through tears, “Our kids are in a mental health crisis.” She strongly objecting to the idea that teenagers might be malingering.

At this point, with just a few weeks left in the semester, it does not appear that the district administration will budge on this issue. The full school board is next scheduled to meet Monday, May 11.

Note: Due to an editing error, the original version of this article omitted that Liesel Carlson also attended and spoke at the meeting as a parent. Her name has now been added.

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