Is it true that Philadelphia students’ grades can only go up, not down?

Some parents worry that if students believe their grades can't drop, they will have less motivation to do the work.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Since the rollout of the School District’s online learning plan for the balance of the school year, students have been getting conflicting messages about how grading will work.

Superintendent William Hite has said repeatedly that he doesn’t want students to be “negatively impacted” for “things they can’t control,” such as a lack of online access, the need to take care of siblings or other family members, or the need to keep a job that is paying the household bills. Some principals have sent out the message to students that grades can go up, but they can’t go down.

Parents have expressed concerns that students may lose motivation to do any work if they feel that they cannot be “negatively impacted” as the District works through its procedures and guidance for this unprecedented situation.

The District began formal online instruction on Monday, April 20, what it is calling “enrichment and review,” and told teachers not to give out grades for that work. Some teachers, to motivate students, said they would get extra credit for completing assignments.

Hite has repeatedly explained that the District will not hold students accountable until May 4, when new material will be introduced. Teachers will take attendance by tracking who has logged on to work posted in Google Classroom and noting who participates in any virtual group sessions. And they will be able to grade work that has been assigned through Google Classroom.

Hite has also said that there will be no fourth marking period, but rather an extension of the third marking period.

So, does that mean the student who has all As will maintain those grades even if he or she does no work between now and the end of the school year on June 12?

No, said District spokesperson Monica Lewis. When Hite said that students “would not be negatively impacted,” what he meant was that “the goal is to keep them learning, so they won’t regress.”

“We’ve gone from four terms to three,” she said. “If they had an A or a B average on March 13, when the schools closed, and then decided to do no digital learning from now through June, their grade average could decline. Not doing any work will contribute to the third marking period grade.”

Individual teachers and schools will determine whether students are not doing work because they are suffering from real hardship, she said.

Teachers can also take into account to what extent students participated in activities and completed assignments this week and next, she said, before the formal introduction of new material.

“The buildings are closed, but schools are still in session,” she said. “Students are expected to log in and check in and do assignments this week and next week. Starting May 4, students will be graded on assignments. Their grades will be impacted whether they do the work or they don’t. If, as of March 13, they had a failing grade, if they engage in the work and submit it properly and well, they could bring the grade up. If they don’t do the work, his or her average could go down. It is possible to fail for the year if they don’t do work for the third marking period.”

The determination of what constitutes circumstances beyond their control will be reviewed case by case, she said.

That said, “By no means are we now saying that someone will be penalized if circumstances at home are preventing them from getting instruction.” If students are not logging in, teachers and other staff are supposed to be reaching out “to make sure the child is OK and has the resources to be healthy and well and then get into the academic portion of it.”