COVID-19 led some schools to drop letter grades. One suburban student is on a quest to get his back.

Karen Ann Cullotta

May 28, 2021

When Elmwood Park High School eliminated letter grades last spring because of the COVID-19 pandemic, honor student Magnus Shipinski — who anticipated earning all As and one B — was disheartened to learn the new pass-incomplete system would mar his transcript with a spate of ambiguous Ps.

“Once the pandemic hit, a lot of students felt like, ‘What’s the point of anything?’ because there was no reason to work hard anymore, when all you needed to do was pass,” said Shipinski, 16, a junior, whose repeated request to have his “pass” grades from last spring changed to traditional letter grades were soundly denied by Elmwood Park Community Unit School District 401.

Shipinski is especially dismayed that his GPA did not get the boost he’d anticipated from what he thinks would have been an A in AP World History.

More than a year later, Shipinski is worried all of those P grades could potentially harm his prospects for college scholarships and for acceptance to prestigious universities where the competition is fierce.

“It’s definitely part of my character and who I am that when I believe in something, I really work for it, so it’s really hard to just ‘pass’ my classes after putting in so much effort and time,” Shipinski said.

The decision by the suburban Chicago high school to abandon traditional letter grades last spring was prompted by a state guideline that schools could use a pass-incomplete system that would mitigate the negative affects of remote learning and support students at an extraordinarily difficult time.

Still, at many Illinois school districts, including Chicago Public Schools, teachers continued to assess their students’ work at the start of the pandemic with letter grades, but in a way that did not lower the grades, with the expectation that incomplete assignments would be finished once students had the opportunity to get back on track.

Grading as usual was reinstated in many districts statewide, including District 401, at the start of the 2020-21 school year.

District 401 Superintendent Leah Gauthier did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

But in an April 27 email to Shipinski after he asked for letter grades to be reinstated, Gauthier wrote: “In weighing all considerations we made that decision on what we thought was best for the entire district.”

“While I understand that you are concerned about your GPA and your class rank let me reassure you that pass/incomplete allowed for your GPA and class rank to remain intact throughout the remainder of the 2019-2020 school year,” Gauthier wrote. “This was the case for all students for GPA and class rank. All students resumed traditional letter grades at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. We will not be making any changes to last year’s grading practices.”

Shipinski also pleaded his case with the Illinois State Board of Education but was told “grading practices are determined at the local district level through school board policies.”

The teen was praised for his “advocacy” and “willingness to share” his perspective, and urged to apply for a spot on the state’s Student Advisory Council.

Many Illinois school districts continued giving students letter grades even at the onset of the coronavirus, with the caveat that a student’s grades would not decline from pre-pandemic levels.

At Palatine-based Township High School District 211, officials created an emergency remediation summer school program last year, which paired about 100 students one on one with mentor teachers who helped them in specific subject areas, District 211 spokesman Tom Petersen said Friday.

About 90% of the teens in the program had “incomplete” grades changed to a passing, he said.

Elgin-based School District U-46 similarly did not lower grades and provided opportunities over the summer and this school year for students who ended the 2019-20 year with “incompletes” to finish the courses, district spokeswoman Mary Fergus said.

Teachers at Township High School District 214 had the option during the pandemic to issue a “pass,” “no credit” or “audit” grade for students in all courses, including those that meet a graduation requirement, spokesman David Beery said Friday.

In addition, the district launched intervention measures, such as providing tutors to students at risk of failing and meeting with parents of high school seniors to ensure they remained on track for graduation.

Brian Taylor, a managing partner at Ivy Coach, which provides college admissions counseling and ACT and SAT tutoring, applauded high schools that assessed students’ progress with traditional letter grades as much as possible throughout the pandemic.

“Shame on the schools that are putting their students at a major disadvantage by not putting the letter grades earned during the pandemic on their transcripts,” Taylor said, adding that while many colleges are now “test optional,” scores from ACT and SAT exams, and high school transcripts, still determine admission.

“One of the reasons applications were up at many colleges is because students thought they could get in without test scores,” Taylor said. “But if a student doesn’t have all of their letter grades on their transcript, and there’s no test, what data can the colleges rely on?”

Still, some foes of standardized tests say that although a full slate of regular course grades would provide colleges a bit more information on a student’s transcript, ”experienced admissions officers do not need all the details from every year of high school to make high quality judgments about applicants.”

“They can, and do, look closely at the rigor of courses an applicant has taken, the high school’s academic profile, the performance of students from the same school who previously enrolled and teacher recommendations, among other factors,” said Bob Schaeffer with FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing.

The disappointment high school students are experiencing after their academic careers and extracurricular accomplishments were derailed by the pandemic is painful, but the setbacks also provide opportunities for growth, said Alexandra Solomon, a family therapist and clinical assistant professor at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.

“You certainly want to validate these students’ concerns and the sense of unfairness and disruption to a meritocratic worldview, where you work hard and have something to show for it,” Solomon said. “Seen through an adolescent’s eyes, it can be seen as quite disruptive, but if you widen the lens, these school systems have been trying so hard during the pandemic and without a playbook.”

While a cluster of “P” grades on a pandemic-era transcript may raise questions for some college admission officers, Solomon said high-achieving students “will still get into many colleges, and be on paths to being very successful.”

Shipinski, whose high school activities include theater and golf, has not yet had any luck in his grade-changing quest, but he isn’t ready to give up just yet.

“It’s pretty upsetting, because other people excel at sports, but for me, my grades at school are my focus, and I’ve put in a lot of time and effort,” Shipinski said. “The district seemed to think I’m asking for every student to be on a grading scale, but I made it pretty clear, I don’t want to cause harm to anyone. But for me, it’s causing harm by not giving me my grades.”

 
 

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