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Editorial & Opinion

Credit/No-credit grading in Providence Public Schools is the only just solution



No young person should be penalized because an unprecedented public health crisis is preventing them from performing at their normal academic level—especially when lower-income, black and brown students will be the ones most negatively impacted.

We are the Youth Programs team at Rhode Island for Community and Justice—a youth empowerment and juvenile justice reform nonprofit in Providence—and we are adding our voices to those calling for the Providence Public School District to adopt credit/no-credit grading for the final academic term. In light of Governor Raimondo’s decision to continue distance learning in Rhode Island for the remainder of the school year, it is clear that this is the only just solution.

As educators ourselves, we are fierce advocates of students and teachers, and constantly push our program participants to reach their greatest academic potential. However, while meeting remotely with the students of our Youth Action Council over the last six weeks, we have witnessed the new and sometimes overwhelming burdens that the COVID-19 pandemic—and the reality of distance learning—has placed on many Providence high schoolers.

We’ve watched and offered support from afar as our Youth Action Council members have been faced with poor internet connections; daytime childcare responsibilities; the emotional toll of home isolation; and anxieties around food, basic necessities, and the health of family members who are essential or frontline healthcare workers.

As with so many of the pandemic’s adverse effects, these challenges disproportionately impact students from low-income and minority families in our state. So this is an issue of decency, but also one of equity.

While quality public education is as vital now as ever before, normal grading practices are not. As any student, teacher, and parent with school-aged children can attest, the last month and a half of the school year has been the opposite of normal. Outside burdens aside, distance learning has seemed to demand greater emotional investment, from everyone involved, for significantly less educational payoff. There’s no need to forge ahead with student grading as if this year is like any other.

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The Providence Public School District should immediately implement more qualitative and compassionate systems of evaluation that acknowledge the difficulty of this moment. Credit/no-credit grading, that does not affect overall GPA, must be at the core of any solution. No young person should be penalized because an unprecedented public health crisis is preventing them from performing at their normal academic level—especially when lower-income, black and brown students will be the ones most negatively impacted.

We should also listen to the students and parents of our city. A Providence Student Union petition calling for opt-in pass/fail grading has amassed over 1,600 signatures from members of the PPSD community in the last few weeks. Citing the need for a “more fair and equitable learning scale that is accommodating to everyone during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the petition highlights the home-life barriers we have described as well as the extra challenges that distance learning poses to students with different learning needs. PSU’s student-leaders are requesting that Providence public school students be allowed to choose between receiving normal letter grades in all of their courses for the final term or receiving all of those grades in a pass/fail format. 

As of two weeks ago, the Rhode Island Department of Education made it clear that it mostly agrees with these students. In the April 17th revision of its official Distance Learning 2020 report, RIDE recommended that all schools in the state “adopt a holistic ‘credit/no credit’ model” of evaluation, while giving juniors and seniors the option to still earn letter grades in case certain colleges and scholarships require them. So the message is clear: the Department of Education supports pass/fail grading across the state, and opt-in pass/fail grading for all juniors and seniors.

However, RIDE also made it clear in in its April guidelines that it will not force individual school districts to comply with this recommendation. So now it’s up to Superintendent Peters, and the leadership of PPSD, to make the right decision for the young people of our city and embrace a credit/no-credit system.

In these strange and harrowing times, Providence students should be granted permission to focus on what is most needed in their families, and to prioritize genuine learning and well-being over a numerical result.

Jacob Osborne, Rose Albert and Becky Kerner run youth programming at Rhode Island for Community and Justice, a youth empowerment and juvenile justice reform nonprofit in Providence.