SUSD Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard

SUSD Superintendent Dr. John Kriekard has moved forward with stricter grading policies than other Arizona districts during online learning necessitated by coronavirus school shutdowns.

Update: SUSD officially announced its new “no harm” grading policy on April 24 after this story went to print. Full details of the policy can be found at https://www.susd.org/cms/lib/AZ50000436/Centricity/Shared/COVID-19/Daily%20Briefings/2020_04_24_Parents%20Briefing.pdf.

The Scottsdale Unified School District is poised to reverse course on its grading policy for at-home learning that had drawn criticism from some parents for being too onerous on students on families.

For Noelle Smetana, an SUSD parent and music teacher in a neighboring district, the move to online learning has been a struggle.

She juggles between providing instruction to her students while helping her young son navigate the new learning landscape.

Smetana, whose son is an SUSD second grader, said the district’s grading policies during the pandemic put an unreasonable burden on families like hers.

“I have over 1,000 students and that equals 39 Google classrooms…so I’m doing that, and I’ll look up and two hours has gone by and my son hasn’t done any work,” said Smetana, a teacher in the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

Unlike Paradise Valley and most other districts around the state, SUSD had continued to allow student performance on online assignments affect grades.

“We are committed to do all we can to prepare our students for the next year,” SUSD spokeswoman Amy Bolton said prior to the change. “Right now, that means having expectations that students are taught fourth quarter standards and curriculum and are expected to complete assignments tied to those lessons.”

But the district appears ready to modify its policy to fall more in line with the Board of Education’s advice that bad grades not be given to junior high and high school students during their last quarter of the year.

A source within the district told the Progress that SUSD planned to adopt a “no harm” policy that would allow students to take the higher of their third or fourth quarter grades as long as they stayed engaged.

The source spoke on the condition of anonymity, because the policy had not been finalized as of press time.

The specifics were not immediately available, but Bolton said that principals and SUSD leadership met late last week to discuss the grading and modifications could be announced as early as April 24.

SUSD was one of the first districts in the state to latch on to the online learning model after schools were closed. The district took one week to prep teachers and staff for the move online before launching classes a week or more ahead of other Arizona districts.

Scottsdale Unified has received applause from parents for its quick and relatively seamless rollout – as well as taking great pains to provide computers, hotspots and meals to students that needed them.

“So far, our experience has been great,” said Brittany Olson, whose 7-year-old son attends Navajo Elementary.

But the district also received criticism from parents who argue the grading policy is overly burdensome on students and parents, many of whom must balance teaching their children while also working from home.

“It’s kind of a struggle going back and forth between the two,” said Alex Wood, a teacher in Chandler whose son is a seventh-grader at Tonalea K-8 in Scottsdale.

Both Wood and Smetana said it is a struggle to keep their children motivated while also teaching their own classes.

Wood said her son is also dealing with anxiety caused by the new learning model. “He seems to be feeling a lot of anxiety right now, so he’s falling behind, but you know we keep trying, but it’s hard for me to kind of shift between the two responsibilities,” Wood said.

The district has ramped up expectations over time.

A letter Smetana received from the district indicated that SUSD entered “Phase II” of online instruction on April 13, and that students can expect “3-5 assessments” in English and math for the quarter.

“Participation and completion in essential lessons will be documented with the goal to determine proficiency…A report card will be issued for each student at the conclusion of the school year,” it said.

The expected policy change is a win for parents like Smetana, who had asked the district to adopt a policy like many other districts that are not penalizing students for poor performance to avoid putting additional stress on students and families.

An online petition started by a parent on Change.org asking the district to change its policy had gathered 1,596 signatures as of April 24.

One of those other districts is Gilbert Unified School District, which serves around 12,000 more students than SUSD.

“It’s really important for us to remember lots of these things that have been happening are out of the control of our students and families,” said Barbara Newman, GPS executive director of teaching and learning. “And so, we don’t want anything that we’ve implemented to negatively impact our students in any way.”

SUSD had defended its original grading policy as the best way to keep students engaged.

Bolton said Superintendent John Kriekard “with support from SUSD Governing Board members, felt it was not appropriate to make the determination of a pass/fail final grade or an option to take their 3rd quarter grade at the beginning of this closure, but to continue to monitor student progress by working with principals and teachers.”

“I support the SUSD administration in its decision to continue teaching lessons and grading work through an online format,” board President Allyson Beckham said. “Public education has a responsibility to uphold the values of learning, opportunity, and academic continuity amidst this global pandemic.”

Beckham stressed that the district has done “everything possible to provide resources, technology, and meals to our community.”

Despite those efforts, there were inconsistencies in the policy that led to confusion and frustration for parents.

Teachers also asked the administration to be flexible on grading student work.

“Because it is still an exceptionally fluid situation, SEA does not have a specific position on grading and attendance,” said Kris Ambri, president of the Scottsdale Education Association. “We do believe, however, that the policy must be flexible depending on grade level and consistent from school to school across the district."

That consistency has been lacking thus far, according to Ambri.

SEA met with over 50 teachers from all levels and found disparities in grading policies across the district and even within individual schools “with some teachers holding students strictly accountable and entering failing grades, while others are being more flexible,” Ambri said.

That inconsistency left some parents feeling out of the loop on the grading policy.

Smetana, a music teacher, said did not know that activities posted in her son’s PE and music classes would be graded until she received emails from his teachers about incomplete assignments.

She said she assignments posted online were suggested activities, not for a grade. “I’m sure that this information was available, but, you know, this is uncharted territory,” she said.

The district source told the Progress that policy was supposed to allow for some grading flexibility – especially at the elementary level – based on teacher discretion but that there was some confusion that caused inconsistency in the application.

The new policy should provide more clarity for families and teachers.

In defending the original policy, SUSD leadership cited anecdotal evidence connecting more lenient policies to a lack of student participation and arguing that stricter grading will better prepare students when they return to school.

Kriekard “did not want to have a situation that neighboring districts are encountering where students have told their parents that they will just take the 3rd quarter grade and stop doing the work,” Bolton said, adding:

“At Scottsdale Unified, our expectation is that our teachers will continue to deliver instruction and that students will continue to work and learn so that they will be as prepared as possible for the fall.”

SUSD board member Sandy Kravetz made a similar point in defending the policy and said the district has received many emails in support of the grading policy.

“There are students (and parents) at two different ends of the grading policy spectrum/dilemma, and many more in-between,” Kravetz said.

“The majority of our students are working diligently to raise or maintain their grade point average. Others are understandably concerned that their grades may suffer as a result of adopting an online class model,” Kravetz continued

“We have heard anecdotally that some districts that quickly adopted a pass/fail model have experienced a significant reduction in student engagement,” Kravetz added. “This could manifest itself in a new set of challenges for educators at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.”

The district source said it took time for the district to formulate a new policy that gave more leeway to families while still encouraging engagement, citing a desire to continue teaching students new material versus relying simply on enrichment of material learned earlier in the year.

Gilbert Public Schools took the position that "we're not going to start the new year expecting that our kids already have mastered all these standards," Newman said.

A Gallup Poll conducted April 3-5 found that 49 percent of parents worry the pandemic’s impact on their kids' education.

Still, it is likely that some level of drop-off is inevitable.

Education expert Jonathan Supovitz compared learning under COVID-19 with that of “summer melt,” which typically refers to learning loss suffered by students over summer break.

Bolton said SUSD "is currently working on a plan that would increase the assessments at the start of the 2020-2021 school year to identify any gaps in learning.”

“I think that there will be probably more of a range in student abilities in entering next year,” said Supovitz, a University of Pennsylvania professor of Leadership and Policy at the Graduate School of Education and chair of the Education Policy Division.

He didn’t think students will see their learning detrimentally affected.

He explained the remote learning is basically for three months, so for a high school senior, it’s not a huge impact. Younger students “have much more time in front of them to acquire those knowledge and skills,” he said.

Correction: This story originally stated in error that a letter to elementary parents showed students would receive 3-5 math and English assignments weekly. The story has been updated to reflect that students would receive 3-5 assignments for the rest of the quarter, not weekly