A lot of adjustments have been made to support people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Report cards should be no different. Sarah Dougherty, the director of secondary teaching and learning at Des Moines Public Schools, explains why an “F” will be replaced with an “Incomplete” this year in order to not fail students due to circumstance they do not control.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has interrupted normal life across the country and around the world, there have been accommodations and supports provided to help people during what has been a challenging time unlike anything any of us has ever experienced.

For example, millions of adults were able to work from their homes at different times during the past year. Economic stimulus checks were provided to many people. Even the deadline to file taxes last year was extended.

But what about students? Should we label children as “failing” due to circumstances over which they have very little control? And should adults expect no accommodations be made for children in the midst of a pandemic?

Throughout much of this school year, we have had discussions at Des Moines Public Schools around grading and reporting for secondary students during the pandemic. Two things were abundantly clear and confirmed during those conversations: we believe that all students deserve high expectations and clear communications about their learning AND we believe that this past year has created more barriers to accessing that learning than ever before.

For these reasons, for the 2020-21 school year, DMPS is temporarily suspending the use of the letter grade “F” and using “Incomplete” in its place.

This approach is not unique to DMPS, and supported by a number of leaders in the educational field, as well as being used by other districts across the country.

We recognize that simply changing the way we report will not absolve us from effective communication about progress nor resolve the increasing needs for supports for student success. Some of the solutions being developed include summer programming, extension of windows to resubmit evidence, expanded use of our FLEX lab practices, and the Core Diploma.

DMPS is not unique in facing the challenges of a global pandemic. We, like other urban school districts, tried to balance learning, safety, and long-term solutions to problems created by COVID-19. We understand that the virtual learning model, although the right choice for the health of our community, has revealed and deepened existing inequities impacting some student learning despite real progress on making grades in DMPS about what students know and are able to do.

Our secondary students, particularly high school students, face post-secondary consequences that impact everything from solid employment, access to health benefits, scholarship opportunities, military recruiting, college athletics, access to post-secondary career training, and much more.  An “F” or course failure on a grade report or transcript during a global health crisis is not equitable or informative of student learning and may have immense impacts on future opportunities.

For these reasons, the following changes are being made to 6-8 and 9-12 grading for the 2020-21 school year:

  • A statement will be included in student transcripts to indicate the unique circumstances in which the course was taken.
  • A designation of “incomplete” will be used for any course failure.
  • Students who receive an “incomplete” will be given opportunities to re-engage and complete their learning.

In one way or another, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted nearly every aspect of day-to-day life. Expecting report cards and transcripts to remain unchanged ignores reality and punishes students without doing anything to support their education.

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