Like many students at Scarsdale High School, Grant Schechtman cares about his grades. He and his classmates have an innate desire to perform well academically. They stay up late reading, studying and finishing essays, constantly challenging themselves and their minds, staying motivated through competition with their peers and with the support of their teachers and friends. But the pandemic has thrown an unprecedented wrench in the school year, forcing students to study, learn and motivate themselves at home in uncharted territory.
“I think Scarsdale students no matter the context always want to get good grades. But I think the difference [now] is many of the stresses in our life that used to be sort of balanced … have somewhat gone away,” said Schechtman, a senior. “It’s unfair that any person’s future should be determined by how well they are able to cope during a global pandemic.”
When the pandemic hit in March, Schechtman’s older sister sent him a petition that students at her university were signing. The petition called for a no-detriment grading policy at the school, whereby students who received a lower grade in a course during the pandemic than they did in a previous semester would have only the previous semester grade counted in their overall GPA.
Schechtman began researching the subject further and found that some of the country’s most prestigious universities had also begun changing grading systems to offer pass/fail or similar options.
Recognizing that high schools are different from colleges, he said, “Grades certainly play a large role in certain aspects of high school, such as placement for courses and for applications for college,” so there should be a policy that “allows students to improve their grades, while not hurting those who are simply unable to perform as well right now due to extenuating circumstances.”
On March 27, Scarsdale High School Principal Kenneth Bonamo announced to students that the school would be moving toward a pass/fail grading system for the rest of the third quarter. When the third quarter ended on April 3, however, Bonamo wrote to students informing them that the school had been “studying the question of fourth quarter grades as a faculty” and came to the decision that the school would be transferring back to letter grades. Bonamo said the fourth quarter grades would reflect graded work from the third and fourth quarters and that the weight of the fourth quarter grade would be adjusted accordingly.
“Having letter grades in the fourth quarter and as course grades will allow student work done in the first and second quarters to be reflected accurately in the course grades, in addition to graded work from the third and fourth quarters,” wrote Bonamo. “Letter grades will also allow us to make important decisions about student placement when necessary and will allow student transcripts to reflect a more specific level of performance than pass/fail grades would.”
At the end of April, Schechtman decided to share his ideas with the school administration and sent Bonamo an email outlining a proposal for the school to adopt a no-detriment policy, which would allow students who performed poorly during the second semester to not have their grades counted in their overall GPA, but if a semester grade were to positively impact a student’s GPA then it could be counted.
In response, Bonamo said that although the no-detriment policy would seem compassionate at first glance, if students were relieved of engaging or performing “then they would be home with perhaps quite literally nothing to do, no way to feel connected and positive.” Bonamo also said that he had asked school faculty to “exercise flexibility and generosity in their assessment and grading practices during this closure and distance-learning environment.”
Schechtman said Bonamo’s comments regarding students not having anything to do underestimated the work ethic of many Scarsdale students and he said there were ways to make sure students were engaged.
“I’m not suggesting … that a student can just give up and just have their first semester grade. There still could be expectations in place in order to qualify to still pass second semester,” said Schechtman.
Not feeling heard by the administration, Schechtman decided to launch an online petition to gauge how the community viewed the grading issue.
The petition, with 1,000 signatures as of May 14, calls for changes to the grading system in light of the pandemic and the shift to mandatory e-learning.
The petition outlines three different approaches the school could take to ease student stress and give students more flexibility with grading: implement a no-detriment policy, allow students to declare if they want individual courses to be pass/fail, or curve grades to encourage students to remain engaged.
Petition signers expressed a range of views.
“I think … our American education system needs massive reform with grading and everything. But I think especially now coronavirus and the pandemic and virtual learning [are] exposing all the problems with it,” said Simran Ruta, a junior. “A lot of colleges and a lot of other schools have changed their grading policy [and] I think we should too because it’s a lot harder. Even though we have a lot more time because there’s no extracurriculars … it’s still a lot harder to focus.”
Alison Robelen, a junior, who admits that she has had difficulty with the transition to e-learning, said many of her teachers have graciously granted her extensions on some work, but she is worried that if her grades slip during the pandemic, it could impact her college prospects.
“I’m having a lot more difficulty keeping up with the lessons that we’ve been doing over e-learning, which has never been a problem for me before. The two classes that I’ve not been confused in all year I’m having a hard time understanding right now just because it’s unavoidable; it’s harder to teach online,” she said, and added, “It’s kind of worrying to know that the grades that I’m getting right now are going to be some of the final data points that are being sent to colleges and going into my GPA that represents my work all year even though I don’t think it’s fair for this to be representative of my work all year.”
Robelen suggested the district could implement smaller changes, such as not penalizing late work, counting participation as a higher percentage of students’ overall grade and not giving homework on weekends.
“That would definitely make a big difference for me,” she said.
After launching the petition, Schechtman received an email from Bonamo reiterating the reasons why the school had transferred back to letter grades. Bonamo added that students who were struggling could reach out to their deans.
Schechtman said it seems as though the administration views his petition as his own “selfish cry” that he had too much work, rather than acknowledging the fact that 1,000 people had signed the petition.
“Administration does not yet understand the gravity of the situation,” he said.
Bonamo told the Inquirer the district does not “make academic policy by responding to petitions” and that there was no way to verify who was on the petition, which might include people who have had no connection to Scarsdale.
“We came to the decision to keep letter grades in the fourth quarter after much deliberation and consideration and it was made with the understanding that students who needed accommodations would be afforded generous flexibility by their teachers,” said Bonamo. “Our consistent message has been that students who are struggling should contact their deans to review their situation and make adjustments as necessary. In such cases, we are able to provide accommodations that meet students’ needs and help them complete the year successfully.”
Robelen said in one of her honors classes she has been receiving excessive work, and after speaking with her classmates who said they agreed the workload was onerous, she reached out to her teacher who then asked the class if the workload was too much. According to Robelen, no one in the class responded to the teacher about the workload.
“I felt like if I was the only one who was feeling like that, it would come across as just a problem I was having and not a problem with the whole system,” she said.
Schechtman said it’s scary for some students to speak up about excessive workloads in the classroom. In one of his classes, Schechtman said he had to email the department chair about the excessive workload in a class because no one else in the class was willing to do so.
Isabelle Haller, a sophomore, said she has been able to speak with her teachers about the workload and teachers have been understanding and accessible.
“They give me time if things are late and I’ve had great teachers this year and I’m really lucky that they’ve just been so nice about it,” said Haller, who also signed the petition. “But I know people who have teachers that probably wouldn’t be the same way.”
SHS senior Caitlin Barotz also said some of her teachers had been checking in regularly and asking if the workload was too much compared to other classes, but in one class none of the students have said anything about having a larger workload because they didn’t want to “oppose the teacher,” she said.
“For a long time we haven’t really known …what the grading system was going to be, we didn’t know when we were going to end school, so I just don’t think many people have been challenging teachers directly,” she said.
Parents have also responded by signing the petition and pushing for a grading policy change in the schools.
Diane Gurden, who has two daughters, a freshman and a junior, said she feels that everything has changed for the students at the school and that e-learning has created an ad hoc system.
“I think everybody is killing themselves. I think the students are working hard, the teachers are working hard, the administration is working hard [and] the parents are working hard,” she said. “It’s like an orchestra and there’s no conductor.”
Moira Crouch Bandsma, who has five kids in the district including a sophomore and a senior in the high school, said she understands that students needed motivation but she doesn’t believe it was right for the school to move back to letter grades in the fourth quarter.
“I don’t think it’s fair to put the expectation on [students] that they can do as well [as] or better than they did before, because some kids are not in the same situation,” she said.
Gurden said parents need to advocate for their children during the pandemic and release some of the pressure that grades put on students.
“Part of my personal decision is to say to them, ‘grades don’t matter, do your best,’” she said. “The most important thing is we get through this alive and as gracefully as we can, and do the best we can and that’s all we can do.”