Millburn has officially decided how grades will be counted for the second semester: there will be no letter grades. Instead, our transcripts will show a pass/fail. 

Seeing the email making this announcement was a relief for me. I’d been worrying about how my grades would suffer if we returned to school before the end of the 2019-2020 school year. We all know that learning at home simply doesn’t provide the same depth of knowledge we receive in school. We learn the information well enough to complete our daily assignments, but expecting students to apply that lacking level of understanding to the rigorous assignments and assessments we normally complete wouldn’t be fair. The fairest option is to remove the stress of assessment so that we don’t have to worry about the state of our grades during our transition back to normalcy.

I know we already completed a significant portion of Quarter 3 before school closed and that many would like to see that grade accounted for in this year’s final grades. While accounting for Quarter 3 puts some students at an advantage, it also puts many at a disadvantage. We can argue back and forth forever about whether students should be rewarded or punished for this unfinished quarter. However, the only way to make sure that everyone is treated equally is to eliminate such reward or punishment. The second semester doesn’t count for all of us—or so I thought.

The initial relief I felt at this fair, logical plan was overcome by more worry when I continued reading the email, learning that teachers can raise or lower our final grades at their discretion. I know that we’re still working hard in each subject despite distance learning and that we need to remain motivated, so I understand the school’s rationale to want to hold students accountable minus the stress of letter grades. The problem I have with this plan is that it eliminates the fairness of pass/fail grades.

Pass/fail is straightforward. You do the work, you pass. You don’t do the work, you fail. There is no room for interpretation. The system currently in place is not straightforward at all. Teachers are given the power to alter our first semester performance based on our work in the second semester. Saying that grades for the second semester don’t count is not true. They do count. There are no longer concrete guidelines we can follow to attain a good grade. Instead, we are subject to vague, nebulous standards, basically depending on pleasing a teacher. Teachers are not following the same standards, or if they are, the standards have not been adequately articulated to the students.

In school, it used to be that we would take tests, do projects, complete labs, write research papers, etc. and we knew that our grades would rise and fall based on our performances.

Now, the amount of work necessary to warrant a grade raise is unclear. Some teachers have released guidelines, which is helpful, but many teachers also have not released guidelines.

Students are no longer sure what to do. Maybe completing the daily assignments on time is enough to warrant a grade raise, maybe it isn’t. What are the standards of effort and when, if ever, will these standards be revealed to students? Instead of being reassured by clarity involving grades, I’m just more concerned, and other students likely feel the same way.

Earning grades is not the problem—we’ll do whatever work we need to. The problem is knowing what we need to do to earn the grades we set our sights on. The control students have over their grades has been taken away. The way it can be restored is by establishing clear, coherent standards that are specific to each subject and to each teacher.

Distance learning is evolving every day. What’s important is acknowledging the grading system at the high school as a point of discussion, needing refinement. The school has the right intentions of making sure students are accountable for their work. It just needs to tell students how they are being held accountable because knowing our grades will be decided at teacher discretion is not enough.