Sunday, April 19, 2020

The Grade Inflation Pandemic of 2020, Part 2: The Solution

Call me Physics Oprah. Because everyone on my roster gets an A this semester. Everyone.

If you didn't read Part 1 (below), you won't realize why I have adopted this grading solution.

After you read Part 1, you may not like this solution. I do not like this solution. But Part 1 details how all the teachers in the San Juan Unified School District were needlessly and deliberately thrown into a no-win scenario. And there are no good solutions to a no-win scenario.

The object lesson provided by the highest-paid district leadership and the dues-collecting union officials couldn't be clearer:
Angry, misguided, vocal minorities operating on incorrect information are to be respected and appeased. 
You could start with a well-reasoned, correct and deliberative position. But abandon it without a fight when any opposition is mounted. Ill-informed? Misguided? It doesn't matter. It's opposition, so capitulation is the expedient response.

I don't like it. It's a policy that comforts the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted. But it wasn't my call. I argued against it to no avail.

But the call has been made and I must roll with it.

It's clear that none of the decision-makers have ever been classroom teachers. If they had, they would realize that they were asking teachers to keep a double set of gradebooks: one set for students happy with the default C/NC and a second for students who were petitioning for letter grades. My god.

I am sure that after throwing teachers under the bus, district and union leadership imagined energetic and innovative teachers would find some way to thread the eyeless needle and develop a second set of online/distance learning policies that would keep students fully engaged with powerful teaching and learning.

And they may be onto something. A colleague compared his Unit 5 and Unit 6 test scores. The Unit 5 test was administered in a secure classroom setting. The average score was under 40%. His Unit 6 test administered online. The average was over 100%. He had clearly made a successful transition to online learning and his students were shining in this new environment. Only a hardened cynic would so much as suggest that elevated Unit 6 scores may have been influenced by cheating of any kind.

So yes, I'm giving all my students A's. Because I have no idea what each of them is up against, but I do know exactly what I'm up against. I will share the news of this obvious grade inflation as far and wide as I can. Admissions officers at colleges and universities need to know: I'm giving all my students A's for Spring 2020. And I'm not the only one. Check out this news from San Francisco. The angry, misguided petitioners' victory is entirely pyrrhic.

I'm giving all my students A's. Because when everyone gets an A, no one gets and A.

But doesn't that hurt students who could have distinguished themselves from their classmates with a performance-based A supported by documentary evidence? Yes it does. But in Spring 2020, we do not possess the means to assemble that performance-based documentary evidence.

That's why Credit / No Credit was the sole correct solution to the circumstances. Those are the only honest grades that can be earned this semester. But the district abandoned honesty. And so will I.

Do colleges and universities need to populate their freshman classes with appropriately capable students? Yes they do. But the Spring 2020 grades in your course (and many courses across the country) may not be an honest reflection of students' capabilities. True. Somehow, colleges will need to overcome The Grade Inflation Pandemic of 2020. I have confidence in their abilities to do so.

Primary source documentation available in the comments.

The Grade Inflation Pandemic of 2020, Part 1: The Problem

As the coronavirus pandemic began to take off, schools around the world began to close. Initially it was thought that a month-long shutdown might suffice. Student were told to take their papers and books home on our last day of school.

After a few weeks of virtual office hours paired with opportunities for students to read, review, and enrich, it was decided that more direct instruction was called for. If assignments are to be assigned and so forth, there must be a mechanism for determining grades.

The in-class lesson plans for the remainder of the year were rendered useless. Teachers had to suddenly master online distance teaching tools and techniques that most of them never had any interest in using.  "Have you activated your Google Classroom? Are you ready to Zoom with your classes? Are you hip to Flip Grid? What about Pear Deck? Do you have an Edulastic account? Have you tried Screencastify or do you prefer Screencast-omatic?" Every company with online solutions flooded teacher inboxes with free trials and promises of online instruction efficacy.

There was an expectation that teachers would flip a switch and put their in-class instruction online. Of course they cannot. And college prep / Advanced Placement lab science? Not a chance.

Even if they could, student families were in various states of preparedness. In any school community, there will be a variety of Internet accessibility. And on a larger scope, there is now a variety of economic stability/parental employment status. And a variety of direct COVID-19 impact.

Practicable instruments to asses individual student performance online do not exist. Period. Full stop. If you believe students can be honestly assessed online, it's because you are old. Well over 20. Anyone under 30 knows secure online assessment doesn't exist. (If you think you know such an online tool, type its name into your search engine and add the word "cheat" and see what happens. I'll wait.)

Given the variety of teacher preparedness and student circumstances, it was decided that the most equitable solution would be to switch from letter grades to pass/fail (credit/no credit). The decision was agreed to and communicated to the district community of teachers, parents, and students.

But some families chafed. Rather than appreciate the extraordinary circumstances and understand that everyone was affected and that colleges and universities would take this into account when evaluating applicants, they took a different tack. They behaved as if their child was going to be saddled with a D– on their permanent record (transcript) and no elite, top-tier post-secondary school would even consider them for admission. College admissions officers would gaze upon the Spring 2020 grade and wonder why it was what it was. Colleges were assumed to be completely unaware of the pandemic.

My own Next Door app feed, usually filled with tales of found and lost Chihuahuas and porch piracy now featured an angry petition to Stop the madness of Credit/No Credit being imposed on district students. Petitioners asserted that the policy would cripple the district's best and brightest students, ruining them for college admissions and beyond. The email addresses of school board members were shared and a boilerplate angry missive was suggested.

They demanded that individual students be able to opt out of Credit / No Credit into letter grades if they so desired.

When I caught wind of this movement, I did what I could to stand in opposition, as you can see in the previous post. The angry petitioners were arguing for a policy that would comfort the comfortable while afflicting the afflicted.

Within hours of my action, the district announced it would acquiesce completely and without modification to the petitioners wishes. Word for word capitulation. My principal instructed faculty to direct their misgivings to their union (San Juan Teachers Association—SJTA) representatives.

The adoptee policy allows students to opt into letter grades, but they can change their mind on that no later than the end of the school year. So if the grade is looking good to them at the end of the semester, they can lock it in. If they don't like what they see, they can fall back to C/NC. Perfect!

The union agreed to this complete and total cave-in, 100% and without any pushback whatsoever. But they attempted to gaslight their dues-paying membership: in an email to be shared with all bargaining unit members, we were told of the pitched battle SJTA mounted.

"We did our best to negotiate, and we got what we could.  Most of our neighboring districts mandated teachers to give letter grades A—F.  Our union was able to reach the compromise of C/NC with the petition piece."

Here's what the Next Door petitioners were petitioning for.

'Instead of the misguided "Credit/Co Credit" policy, the district should allow ALL students the option to choose either "Credit/No Credit" OR letter grades."

Re-read the union's statement—they never said that our district was demanding X and SJTA battled them back to Y. In reality, the angry petitioners and their school board enablers demanded Y, and SJTA agreed to Y. No negotiation; no compromise.

UPDATE: I had a conversation with the president of the SJTA. It seems that the union had very little leverage in this decision. The school board and superintendent went forward with their capitulation and there really wasn't much the union could do about it. And the petitioners' demands were in line with CDE broad guidelines for what would be permissible. Still though, the objectively correct response to the pandemic closures was to adopt Credit/No Credit. And to then stand firm in that position. My district opted to appease the angry petitioners. That decision, expedient in the short term, will not age well.

This is the context necessary to understand my solution as laid out in Part 2.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Maintaining resolve on Credit / No Credit

[My district, San Juan Unified in suburban Sacramento, decided to adopt Credit / No Credit grading for Spring 2020. But they are facing blowback from a certain element in the community. So I wrote this and sent it to the decision-makers. How is your institution handling Spring 2020 grades? Let me know in the comments.]

The feed on my Next Door app has turned from posts about lost and found Chihuahuas to angry missives about the San Juan Unified School District’s decision to adopt Credit / No Credit grades for the pandemic shutdown second semester: Spring 2020.

I am grateful that I can count on my district and especially my association to maintain their resolve on this important decision. Because it is the correct decision.

During shutdown, there is no way to assess individual student knowledge or capabilities. In functional school, in-class tests carefully designed by classroom instructors could be administered and proctored by those teachers to ensure accurate and secure results. There is no practicable way to do that online. None. Everyone under 20 understands that perfectly well. People over 30 have diminishing understanding of that, which decreases with increasing age.

That reality, alone, is enough to scuttle any hope of being able to produce letter grades for students during shutdown. But it gets worse.

As of March 13, 2020, instructors such as myself planned to make it to retirement without ever having constructed or administered an online version of their course. I teach college prep and Advanced Placement physics lab courses. No one imagines teaching or learning such a subject in an online environment. No one.

Sophisticated and specialized demonstration equipment remains locked away in access-restricted classrooms. Sophisticated and specialized laboratory apparatus for hands-on student lab group collaborative experiment activities is similarly behind lock and key. Neither demonstrations nor labs can be conducted or assessed during shutdown. And these are the core of my courses.

As of March 16, 2020, I have been bombarded with invitations and recommendations to engage in Google Classroom, Pear Deck, Edulastic, Flip Grid, Zoom, etc., not to mention online science resources. The flood of online platforms, tools, and resources is overwhelming and I am being asked to build an airplane while it is in flight. I know nothing of these things and never planned on using any of them. They do not pertain to the job I was hired to do—a job that I have been recognized for doing exceptionally well.

Could I assign copious reading, video watching, and essay writing for the many, many students on my roster? Yes. But those assignments would be going into homes with an untold variety of circumstances: high and low bandwidth, high and low economic anxiety, high an low physical space, and myriad environments—some more conducive to learning than others. At best, getting all those lengthy assignments back would require time beyond what’s available to assess.

Those who insist that letter grades be awarded during this time appreciate and understand none of this. They are worried that a Credit/No Credit grades awarded in Spring 2020 will disqualify students from admission to top-tier elite post-secondary institutions. They imagine that none of these institutions will be aware of the global pandemic that shut down the world in Spring 2020. They worry that students from districts who are awarding letter grades in Spring 2020 will have a competitive advantage over SJUSD students in college admissions. None of this is true.

In short, it is a small but vocal band of affluent families who are arguing for letter grades that cannot be determined honestly in Spring 2020. It is an argument for a policy that comforts the comfortable and afflicts the afflicted.

I appreciate my district and my association rejecting such a policy.

Dean Baird
Rio Americano High School Physics
Presidential Awardee for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching
American Association of Physics Teachers Fellow