Charles County schools buffer blow of failing grades — for now

Students in Charles County, Maryland, schools, like kids across the country, are feeling the effects of an extended period of distance learning: confusion, anxiety, isolation.

School officials say it has contributed to an alarming jump in F’s recorded in the first quarter.

To help students struggling with online learning, the Charles County school board voted to suspend the current grading policy and calculate F grades at 50%.

Amy Hollstein, deputy superintendent for Charles County Public Schools, suggesting assigning F’s a 50% value after reviewing the rate of failing grades compared to last year at the same time.

“In high school, we’ve seen a 72.7 % increase in the number of F’s that were awarded in the first quarter,” she said, adding that the figures for middle school were similar.

Several students who didn’t get hot spots to help with connectivity until the end of the quarter were given an “Incomplete” grade, Hollstein said.

Considering all the issues with online learning, she urged the board of education to change the grading policy.

“We do believe that we should give traditional grades,” Hollstein said, rejecting a move to use a pass-fail system as some school districts have done.

Without any changes made, she said, “There is no mathematical way” for students to pass a class, which leads to students losing hope of passing their grades.

One board member asked the number of cases where students just checked out on a class, not because they didn’t have internet access, but because they didn’t want to participate. Hollstein suggested that is something that is challenging to determine.

Instead, she said, the feedback she’s getting from families indicates the issues tied to the pressures of the pandemic, including academics and family life, as well as a student’s social and emotional lives.

Even high-achieving students, including those in Advanced Placement classes, are struggling with the obstacles that learning online can present, Hollstein said.

In many cases, Hollstein said, she heard from parents frustrated that their child’s assignments were turning in on time but that a grade was not recorded.

“And some of them just want to give up … Because they’re doing the work, but it’s not being counted,” and the students aren’t getting credit, Hollstein said.

Students also report frustration over the pace of assignments and work with various platforms, sometimes within the same course. Parents also said when their child mastered one platform, they were conveniently switched to another, Hollstein said.

Parents with more than one child at home also reported difficulty managing different schedules and keeping track of their schoolwork with teachers.

Hollstein said that while parents want to hear from their children’s teachers, the emails stacking up in their inboxes leaves them feeling “overwhelmed.”

Kathy Kiessling, director of Student Services, said the number of students being referred for emotional help or support has gone down, as teachers can’t observe behaviors that might signal emotional problems or alert school officials to suspected abuse.

Kiessling said the effect of anxiety over the pandemic, along with the day-to-day challenges of learning online, can’t be overlooked.

“It is a fact that a stressed brain cannot learn like an unstressed brain,” Kiessling said.

Ian Herd, the student representative on the school board, said board members made the right move in changing the grading policy.

“We all know at the beginning there was turbulence. And, I think we can’t fault any student for that,” he said, referring to a bumpy start to the school year.

“This is a compassionate move that’s needed,” Herd said.

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Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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