Grades, college admissions and more in the time of coronavirus (part 2)

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.

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 second of a two-part series. Mary Pat O’Neil answered questions in part 1 and Anne Holmdahl answers in part 2 below.

Anne Holmdahl

Question: Why can’t districts use the same grading system (e.g., A, B, C, D and F grades) for distance learning? Why do they need a new system?

Honestly, some districts around the country ARE using the same grading system, as are some private schools. Technically, we didn’t “need” a new system, but states and districts want to protect the most vulnerable students – those who have limited access to technology, those who don’t have a quiet place at home to study, those who have learning differences that are just not managed as well through distance learning, and those who are just struggling with the sea change in their lives. The State Superintendent laid out some rules for the districts, and they are allowed to interpret them as appropriate.  And around here, that’s a whole lot of different interpretations.   

Question: Should students still plan on taking the SAT/ACT if they were planning on doing so prior to schools shutting down?

If it is possible, I do recommend that all students try to take an SAT or ACT. Most colleges are going to some form of “test optional,” allowing students to submit an application without test scores. But optional should mean that the student has the option of submitting or not. If you don’t take a test, you won’t have the option to submit your scores. If there is a real reason that you cannot take an exam – for example, you are immune-compromised, or you have to work on Saturdays because your parents lost their jobs, or, of course, if the exams are just not offered anytime in the next six months, be assured that most colleges will accept your application without test scores. The upside is that, if you do take the test and your scores are not strong for the schools to which you are applying you do have the option to not send them.  My general rule of thumb is that, if your scores are in the top 50% for a particular school, you should submit. 

Question: We’re hearing this scenario a lot. A parent is concerned about their high school student who lives in a district that will use a more traditional grading system (some combo of A/B/C/D). Will that hurt their chances getting into a good college if other nearby districts are mostly giving students an “A” for effort?

The fact that hundreds of colleges have already made dramatic changes to their testing requirements is heartening. I love the fact that colleges have had to create virtual admissions events – tours, information sessions, Q&A opportunities, student panels, etc. – and they are really excited about the opportunities this is opening for students from around the country and the world to get in-depth information about their school. 

Anne Holmdahl, College Counselor

I’m calling this the Semester Of The Asterisk. Every single student in this country has been affected by this pandemic. Grades for this current term will ALL have an asterisk next to them.  So whether your school goes to a pass/fail system, or a credit/no credit system, or gives literally everyone an A in every single class, there will be an asterisk. And if your neighboring district gives everyone an A, but your district gives As and Bs, don’t worry about it. High schools will let the colleges know what their  asterisk means. If you are concerned – primarily at large public institutions that do not require transcripts up front and have no essays, go ahead and send a VERY BRIEF note to your admissions officer after you submit the application. My recommended wording: “The corona virus grading protocol at our high school was (pass/fail, A/incomplete, A,B, C only). Just want to confirm that you had that information as you process Billy’s application.” 

We don’t know yet how colleges will manage this. My guess is that they don’t know this yet, either. They are still trying to figure out what to do with the kids they just finished admitting. I think we’ll hear a whole lot more this summer. My thoughts? Some schools will just drop the grades from 2nd semester in GPA calculations and will only look to see what courses your students took. Some schools will use whatever GPA your high school assigns – and then go check for the asterisk. Some schools will request 1st quarter senior year grades/progress reports of all students who apply early action or early decision. As with everything in this time, we’re going to have to just go with the flow. 

Question: What are some trends or developments you are seeing from college admissions offices right now that families and students can take comfort in?

First and foremost, they really do care about the kids. I have been spending hours in webinars every week with college admissions officers and that is the first thing I’m hearing and feeling.  Colleges by their nature are slow-moving behemoths. The fact that hundreds of colleges have already made dramatic changes to their testing requirements is heartening. I love the fact that colleges have had to create virtual admissions events – tours, information sessions, Q&A opportunities, student panels, etc. – and they are really excited about the opportunities this is opening for students from around the country and the world to get in-depth information about their school. 

Even more than that, I think that kids and families need to take comfort in the fact that they are not alone. Every single kid – not just in this country but around the world – has been impacted by this pandemic. And every single college is aware and concerned for the health and well-being of these students. 

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I don’t believe in “soul mates” – in life or in college. I love my husband of 28 years. We have a great life and a great family and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. But if I hadn’t met him, I probably would have met some other great person and had a different but also amazing life. Don’t feel that there is only one college for you. Take advantage of these new college resources – and watch how these schools respond to the crisis – and really do some work to find a set of schools to which you’ll apply where you could be amazingly happy. 

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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.