Now Denver high school students can choose to earn letter grades — or not

The Denver school district is changing its approach to high school grading during remote learning, after hearing feedback from students, families, and educators.

Students will now have a choice: For each class, they can decide whether they want to receive a letter grade or would prefer their transcript to show that they earned or did not earn credit for the course. No student will receive an F this semester.

That’s according to a newsletter Denver Public Schools sent to families Thursday. The new grading approach differs from the approach the district announced last week, which did away with letter grades in favor of a credit-or-no-credit system.

District officials last week said that a system in which students either earned credit or no credit was more equitable because it wouldn’t penalize students for whom remote learning is difficult or even impossible because they lack the technology or time to participate.

But not everyone favored that approach. Some students worried it would affect their college prospects, while others felt it failed to honor the hard work they’d done this semester, said Northfield High School Principal Amy Bringedahl in an interview earlier this week.

“One student said, ‘I’ve worked so hard to have straight As this semester for the first time in my high school career and now it’s not going to count,’” Bringedahl said.

This new approach allows for more flexibility, Denver’s Deputy Superintendent of Academics Tamara Acevedo wrote in the newsletter sent to families. Students can decide on a class-by-class basis which grading approach they prefer.

Students who choose letter grades will be able to improve upon their grade, but it won’t go down. The grade students had in a course on April 6, the day before remote learning started, will be the lowest grade they can receive for the semester “as long as students continue to engage in learning in accordance with their school’s remote learning plan,” Acevedo wrote.

Any F grades will appear on a student’s transcript as “no credit.” Students will have the chance to improve that “no credit” designation at a later time, Acevedo wrote.

The approach applies to all of Denver’s district-run high schools. The district’s 60 charter schools can get a waiver that allows them to adopt their own grading structures.

The change brings Denver more in line with most metro area districts, which are continuing to grade work, at least for high school students, but promising students they won’t get a lower grade than they had before they left school in March.

At the same time, many districts are focusing more on providing “feedback” than on grading schoolwork, given the many challenges of remote learning.

“We encourage all students and parents to see the value in learning and preparing for the next level course work without the additional pressure of grades,” said a spokesperson for the Douglas County School District, which is taking the “hold harmless” approach.

In the Cherry Creek district, “students will receive feedback on work and assignments that are turned in for review. Grading practices will be level-specific and intended to support students rather than negatively impacting their grades,” officials said. That means no grades in elementary school, pass-or-fail in middle school, and grades that won’t go down in high school.

In Denver, the approach is different for elementary and middle school than for high school. Elementary school students won’t get letter grades. Rather, their report cards will contain feedback about whether they understand “the critical learning for the grading period.”

Middle schools can choose to follow the elementary school grading approach or adopt a modified version of the high school approach, Acevedo wrote.

Chalkbeat bureau chief Erica Meltzer contributed to this report.