With the school year thrown into chaos for New York City students during the coronavirus pandemic, the city’s Department of Education is still deciding how grades will be managed for disrupted courses.
School testing has been upended on many levels. Earlier this week, College Board officials said an at-home version of the SAT exams is in development. The SAT exam scheduled for May 2 has been canceled, and Advanced Placement tests will be administered in an at-home format starting in mid-May.
The state Department of Education also announced a number of changes this week, including canceling the Regents exams scheduled for June, though the August exams are still on schedule; and canceling testing for students in third through eighth grades, as well as the English as a second language achievement test in grades K-12.
The state also updated graduation requirements to reflect the canceled Regents exams.
"Regents exams are one of multiple measures schools use to assess student performance. Given the State’s decision to cancel June exams, schools will continue reviewing student progress based on many pieces of student work, which can include assessments, projects and assignments. Our teachers and school leaders will continue to engage their students so that they stay on track to complete their coursework this year,” said Danielle Filson, spokesperson for the city DOE, in an email. She said the city would consider “flexibility” on grading schoolwork and that each school may have different approaches.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the inequalities in the American school system’s reliance on testing, one education policy analyst said.
Those inequalities are stark in the New York City public school system. Estimates by the City Council say more than 72 percent of the system’s 1.1 million students live in poverty. When remote learning was introduced as public schools closed, Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said the city was rapidly buying hundreds of thousands of laptops, tablets and other technology for the estimated 300,000 students who don't have access to internet-connected devices. The city has only distributed 55,000 tablets to date, the DOE said.
“I think that it's really a moment for us to re-evaluate the value of using these state tests,” said Matt Gonzales, director of the Integration and Innovation Initiative at NYU Metro Center which works on solving educational segregation. “The decision that the Regents made to cancel the test is a very clear acknowledgement that under these extreme circumstances, the use of these assessments cannot be done in an equitable way.”
“What COVID-19 has done is really compound a whole range of access, equity, and resource issues for the system and it's put a tremendous strain on the system,” Gonzales said. “Whatever happens after this, we can't go back to whatever that normal was, because that normal already was a system that was inequitable,” he added. “The role assessments have played over the past couple of decades has not solved those problems.”
Councilmember Mark Treyger also wants to ensure that students aren’t penalized for attendance this year either especially since some students still haven’t received devices for remote learning.
"Many, many low-income New Yorkers from Coney Island to the South Bronx to other parts of the city still have not received their technology. So we have children who literally are now falling behind weeks of instruction. So I think that the DOE needs to set the parameters on what a fair grading system looks like for all schools, and then schools can kind of customize it to their individual school communities. But students should not be penalized right now for attendance policies, and we have to account for the fact that thousands of kids still have not received technology — so there's no way to effectively gauge student learning when we cannot communicate with them effectively,” said Treyger, who is the chair of the City Council’s education.
The DOE said attendance will not be a factor in calculating grades this year.
Some parents say the New York school system could use this opportunity to restructure, with the most at-risk students as the main priority.
Elka Samuels Smith, the mother of two kids who attend elementary and high school in Hells Kitchen, said in an email to Gothamist, “I have heard of pass/fail or a freeze-grading option where grades could only go up from their last received report cards, but still I am not sure it would be possible to come up with a system that is entirely fair to all at this point. I'm just hoping that whatever is finally decided will be with the utmost consideration for the most vulnerable students. Now is certainly not the time to perpetuate even greater systematic inequalities."
Another parent, Shino Tanikawa of Soho, has worked with Gonzales on school integration issues. While her daughter, a high school senior, is almost done with the public school system, Tanikawa said she is “gravely concerned for students who still do not have digital devices and/or are not in an environment to actively participate in remote learning even if they have a device.”
“To me, grades under the current remote learning system cannot be indicators of student learning or achievement in any way,” Tanikawa said in an email. “The short answer is we should be doing pass/fail for all students.”
“I'm completely fine with tests being canceled—both 3 -8 Math/ELA and Regents, the latter of which should just disappear forever,” she said, and added, “This pandemic can be an opportunity to reimagine what public education should and could be. It should give us all a pause (beyond sheltering in and locking down) to ponder what we want our high school graduates to know and who we want them to be.”