Grades, college admissions and more in the time of coronavirus (part 1)

The switch to distance learning has understandably been a challenging one for districts. From rolling out new technology to renegotiating teacher contracts to engaging students on new platforms and serving meals to families who need them, running a school district in 2020 is a whole new ballgame.

One aspect of distance learning that is getting a lot of attention is grading. And like everything else with distance learning, for a host of reasons, using the same grading systems that were in place when students were in school every day doesn’t necessarily align with the reality of online learning.

School districts across Washington are now releasing the grading systems they plan to use for the remainder of the 2019-20 school year.

There’s been a lot of confusion and stress around what these new grading systems mean for students, especially for high school. Because high school is what officially counts in the education life of a student. It counts towards a job or any number of post-secondary opportunities, including and especially college (in every form – two-year or four-year programs). So what’s on that high school transcript is a big deal.

Mary Pat O’Neil  and Anne Holmdahl are private college counselors with a wealth of experience helping students navigate high school and apply to colleges and other post-secondary programs. With the lives of so many juniors and seniors disrupted due to coronavirus, we reached out to them with questions we’re hearing from families. They are on the ground (while maintaining social distance!) every single day learning and sharing on this topic. Not only are they well connected to reliable information about higher education, they also have years of real-world experience helping students launch their lives from high school to the next step.

This is the first of a two-part series. Mary Pat O’Neil answers questions in this post (part 1) and Anne Holmdahl answers in part 2.

Mary Pat O’Neil

Question: We’re hearing some families are looking to change schools, districts or even switch entirely to accredited online schools. What is your advice to parents’/students’ concerns that some schools or districts appear to offer a more robust distance learning experience than others?

My advice would be to take a deep breath and don’t freak out. Yes, school districts are handling grading in different ways. This is allowed because Washington is a “local control” state which means that districts are allowed to govern themselves within the guidelines provided by the Office of Superintendent of Public Information (OSPI). On April 21st, OSPI said that it would not allow high school students to receive pass/fall or credit/no credit for the second semester.

Schools must give grades (although no Fs) or Incompletes (Is); how this is done has been left up to the schools. Incompletes can be made up through summer or online courses, taken the following school year, independent study, competency-based assessments, or a back-filled grade. High school transcripts will include an asterisk for this semester explaining what grading policy a school implemented during this period. A student with an unresolved Incomplete on their transcript should explain the circumstances as well as their plans to resolve it.

If you were satisfied with the quality of education that your children received prior to the pandemic, I would stay put. This is one high school semester out of eight. A secondary school report is often part of a student’s college application. It is basically a report card on a high school and includes the following information:

  • Number of students enrolled
  • Demographic information of students
  • Percentage of students receiving Free & Reduced Lunch
  • Percentage of students attending a 4 or 2-year college or the military
  • Average ACT and SAT scores of students
  • Classes of “rigor” offered by the high school (AP, IB, etc.)

Colleges ask for this information because just like so many things in life, high schools are not created equally. If a student’s transcript shows them doing well in school and taking rigorous classes prior to the coronavirus outbreak, colleges realize that the student would likely have had the same results. And if a student who normally received Cs suddenly earns all As this semester, colleges understand what happened.

Colleges allow students to explain special circumstances that might not show up on the regular application.

We are going through a chaotic and uncertain time. School districts and teachers are doing their best “not to do harm”. Colleges know that students have zero control in the decisions made by their school about grades. A student’s grades from this semester do not necessarily reflect on their ability. In my opinion, trying to change schools right now would only make things worse.

Question: For districts that are only assigning grades of “A” or “Incomplete” what is your advice to families to help students stay motivated absent a grade (because many students need that type of goal), especially given that other positive aspects of school life, such as spending time with friends and extra-curricular activities, aren’t available?

It’s hard to stay motivated and on-task. I know I don’t always find it easy. The first thing I would tell a student is to do all they can to get the A! Do at least the minimum – let’s face it, the bar is fairly low. This experience is giving high school students a little taste of college because self-discipline is needed to be successful. Students should be focusing on the longer-term goal of applying to college and graduating from high school. This is simply a moment in time – keep your eye on the prize and stay focused on learning.

Most high school students now take seven classes per semester which is a lot. And students will not feel the same about each class; everyone likes different subjects. The teacher can also make a huge difference. If you think about it, there is a lot less pressure on students right now which I think is a good thing. This is a chance for students to learn about themselves. It’s also a time for students to shine, which I will address in a later question. I hope that during this process, students learn what classes they actually enjoy and follow their curiosity in these areas. Perhaps go above and beyond in these classes for the pure enjoyment of learning.

I think it helps to have a daily schedule and the student should decide what works best for them. Do you want to do your schoolwork in the morning?  In the afternoon?  At night?  Parents shouldn’t create the schedule – the student should have control over it. This helps students develop independence and take ownership. The schedule should also include time for exercise, chores, and playing. I am a big believer in accountability – it should be written down and signed by both the student and parents.

I look forward to learning what students discovered about themselves during this time – and so are colleges.  I know many students are bored – that is fabulous! So many students have had over-committed schedules with no time to breathe or sleep. The key is what did you do during this time?  The pressure of failing has been removed for most students – I think it would take a lot of work to receive an Incomplete. What message does a student send a college with an Incomplete when the other option is an A? 

Of course, there are circumstances when a student would receive an Incomplete due to circumstances beyond their control. Right now many teens are also helping at home with childcare for younger siblings or even working to earn extra money to help pay bills, so please know that I am speaking generally. If a student did receive an Incomplete during this time, I would encourage them to explain the situation on their college applications.

For the sake of their mental health, I hope students are doing some socializing (within social distancing guidelines and parent supervision).  Teens are all about their friends.

Question:  If colleges can’t rely on grades given out during this time of distance learning, what will colleges consider? Will SAT/ACT scores become more of a factor?

Most colleges look at more than the high school transcript in reviewing a student’s college application. As with all things relating to college, it depends on the college. In addition to grades and course selection, here are other things a college may use in reaching a decision.

  • Standardized test scores (ACT or SAT)
  • High school activity list (beginning in 9th grade)
  • Letters of recommendation
  • Essays

Most colleges weigh a student’s cumulative GPA (including rigor of classes) heavily because it shows a student’s track record and is considered a good indicator of how well a student will do in college. Colleges want students to be successful. Remember that this is (hopefully) only one semester.

A number of colleges have announced they will become SAT or ACT test-optional for Fall 2021 admissions (and some for beyond) since test dates have been canceled due to the coronavirus. I am glad to see this as not everyone does well on standardized tests. It’s important to remember that test-optional is not the same as test-blind. Test-optional means that students do not have submit ACT or SAT scores. However, many students will submit scores because they took tests before March 2020 and colleges may consider the scores. Test scores are simply data points and can be used as one more piece of information to help a college decide whether to admit a student. Test-blind schools do not look at test scores even if a student submits them.

Depending on the selectivity of a college or specific program, I am advising students to take the ACT or SAT if they haven’t already. Depending on a student’s plans, colleges may consider portfolios or writing samples in replacement of test scores. No one is defined by a grade or a test score. Most colleges consider more than grades in their application review.

Question: Given how confusing the grading systems are, what are some areas of academic or other arenas students may want to consider focusing on?

Keep in mind that many colleges look at more than a student’s grades and test scores. This can be a time for a student to shine in their activities. Colleges want to know what a student does when not in school or doing homework. The pandemic has canceled many of the activities that students normally do. So what are you doing with this newfound time?  I won’t be surprised to see some variation of that question included in colleges’ supplemental essays.

I often encourage students to talk to adults whose careers interest them. Many adults are also bored now and would be welcome the opportunity to answer questions from high school students. Parents can be useful in finding adults in specific careers. For example, a student interested in engineering might interview mechanical, electrical, aeronautical, environmental, and civil engineers to get a better sense of what it means to be an engineer. This project can be included on a student’s activity list.

Students are so much more than their grades. Colleges are looking for students to fill their classrooms; 80 percent of colleges in the United States accept at least 50 percent of the students that apply.

Mary Pat O’Neil, College Counselor

This is a great time for students to learn life skills such as cooking, doing laundry, and budgeting. It’s a huge transition to leave home for college and not all students are successful. Developing necessary life skills can build a student’s confidence. Here is a link for more suggestions.

 I want students to focus on things that bring them joy and teach them self-discovery. Some summer programs will now be offered remotely (and typically at a lower cost). I never want a student to do something to look good to a college; I want them to have the experience to learn more about themselves. Each of us is different and there is not one path after high school.

The Seattle area is known for having academically-strong high school students. Having good grades and test scores only gives students a raffle ticket for admission to highly selective schools. If college applicants have similar data points (GPA and test scores), I believe a student can stand out through their activities. These activities can lead to very interesting essays.  While most of a college application is based on data, an essay gives a student the opportunity to show their character and personality. A college essay is an exercise in storytelling and a way for a student to show they deserve a spot at a college.

Some colleges require or allow letters of recommendation from guidance counselors, high school teachers, and outside recommendations. Engaged students are more likely to have people willing to write these letters.

Some colleges also consider an interview as part of the admissions process. This is another way for colleges to learn more about a student and for a student to explain any special circumstances that might not be clear on their application.

Students are so much more than their grades. Colleges are looking for students to fill their classrooms; 80 percent of colleges in the United States accept at least 50 percent of the students that apply.


For more detailed information about the grading policies of Bellevue, Everett, Issaquah, Lake Washington, Mercer Island, Northshore, Riverview and Snoqualmie Valley school districts, please see our coverage at State mandates and local control: grading policies vary widely among districts during school closures.