ST. PAUL -- With students struggling to learn from home during the coronavirus pandemic, many schools in Minnesota and elsewhere removed D’s and F’s from report cards in favor of pass-fail grades that don’t hurt grade-point averages.

For some school districts, there may be no turning back.

“I think it’ll be difficult to go back to something that’s more restrictive and less individualized,” said Kate Wilcox-Harris, chief academic officer for St. Paul Public Schools, which has a work group exploring permanent grading changes.

After Gov. Tim Walz ordered schools closed in March 2020, the St. Paul district converted all third- and fourth-quarter D’s and F’s into passing grades so that high schoolers would stay on track for graduation.

For the 2020-21 school year, the Minnesota Department of Education urged schools to maintain a “do-no-harm” philosophy. Students, the department said, should get to choose the option of receiving a letter grade if it’s going to help their grade-point average, or a pass/fail grade if it won’t.

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“During this time of COVID-19 and beyond, families, students and educators must be given choices in assessment and grading,” the department said in a guidance document last summer.

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St. Paul followed that advice, offering students the option of converting D’s, C’s and even B’s into grade-point-neutral P’s, for Pass. Instead of F’s, students would get grades of NP, for No Pass, which wouldn’t accrue graduation credit but wouldn’t hurt their grade-point averages.

‘We didn’t want students to give up’

The St. Paul school district didn’t stop there.

When high schoolers failed 35 percent of their first-quarter classes, the district told students that if they could manage a passing grade during the second quarter, they’d get a passing first-quarter grade, too.

“We didn’t want students to give up,” said Central High School Principal Christine Vang. “That really provided a lot of motivation for a lot of students.”

Daevon Goodlow, a Central junior, said he passed a first-quarter history class thanks to the “earn back” policy.

“That helped me realize that we had to actually get our work done. For the next quarters, it wasn’t going to be easy from there,” he said.

Thanks to the grade revision, first-quarter fails dropped to 28 percent of all St. Paul high school classes. However, students again failed 35 percent of their classes during the second quarter and 39 percent in the third.

“That worked for some students. It didn’t work for all students,” Wilcox-Harris said.

Beyond the grading changes, St. Paul has looked for other ways to keep students progressing toward graduation despite the pandemic.

It varies by school, but teachers generally have allowed students to turn in late work for full credit this school year. And teachers have allowed students to demonstrate in new ways that they’ve learned the material.

Darren Ginther, director of college and career readiness, said principals have asked permission to extend windows for students to turn in work, among other student-friendly changes.

“The answer’s always, ‘Absolutely,’ ” he said.

Earning back credits

The pandemic has brought about innovation in credit recovery, too. Traditionally, it was offered at one location where students would work through a virtual curriculum with a teacher standing by to help. This semester, St. Paul students are earning those credits at their home high schools, during and after the school day, in abbreviated courses taught by teachers at those schools.

The district’s also letting students test out of parts of their credit-recovery courses so they don’t have to start all the way over.

Central High freshman Emma Theis has benefited from in-school credit recovery after struggling to find an academic groove at the start of the school year.

“When you’re at home, it’s kinda like you can push it off because you’re not doing anything the rest of the day,” she said. “I was in a really bad habit of pushing it off until like 1 in the morning.”

Theis said distance learning was especially difficult because she was just starting high school.

“A lot of kids didn’t understand it was real; you need to get good grades,” she said.

When the district let students come back to school this year — first in February with in-person support once a week, and then with a four-day school week in April — she finally found motivation.

Theis said she thought, “OK, these teachers are here for me, so I want to do better.”

Despite all the flexibility, more students are behind than in a typical year — but not by much.

At the end of the third quarter, 90.4 percent of St. Paul seniors were on track to graduate. That figure has ranged from 89 percent to 96 percent in the previous six years.

The district will be offering expanded summer school options in hopes that seniors who can’t graduate in June can do so by August.

Around the state

Like St. Paul, the Roseville Area district is thinking about making permanent changes to its grading practices.

Its middle and high schools are accepting late work through the end of each trimester, using pass-fail grades in place of D’s and F’s, and awarding 50 percent credit instead of zero on missing assignments so they don’t pull the average hopelessly down.

“I think there’s changes that we need to make and we learned that we can do,” said Jake Von De Linde, director of teaching and learning.

Anoka-Hennepin for years has encouraged teachers to accept late work and allow students to retake tests. During the pandemic, they’ve also adopted pass-fail grades in place of D’s and F’s.

Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan is doing the same with its grades while also being flexible with academic deadlines.

South Washington County Schools still awards the traditional letter grades, but is letting students replace them with pass-fail grades. In past years, that was allowed only for elective courses.

Douglas Reeves, a grading expert with Creative Leadership Solutions in Boston, said pass-fail grading was appropriate in spring 2020, when schools suddenly had to send students home without a plan for keeping in touch.

This school year, he thinks pass-fail grading does more harm than good as students can’t distinguish themselves as they compete for college admission and scholarships.

“That, I think, especially hurts disadvantaged students,” Reeves said.

But the approach Minnesota encouraged — letting students choose whether to take a letter grade or a grade-point-neutral pass or fail — makes more sense, he said.

Still, Reeves wonders about the long-term consequences. One year’s grades should give the next year’s teacher an understanding of what a student has learned, he said.

“I have an obligation to my colleague teaching ninth grade: Is this kid ready for ninth grade? And I think the honest answer to that in many cases is no,” he said.

If schools are advancing students who haven’t learned the material, they’d better have a plan for addressing that, Reeves said. He suggests schools reconfigure schedules to have fewer classes next year and set aside extra time for math and literacy instruction.

“If we don’t give (students) the support they need, they are facing years of trouble,” he said.