Vernon schools ponder pass/fail grading system

Vernon. Teachers and school officials said grades offer incentive, at at time when students aren’t handing in their work and seem to be shutting down.

23 Nov 2020 | 11:25

Vernon Township School District officials considered moving to a pass/fail grading system as students continue to struggle academically in the hybrid and virtual models forced upon them by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Assistant Superintendent Charles McKay reported last Thursday that district students had 500 more failing grades in the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year than the first quarter from 2019-20.

“This is not a reflection on students and faculty and teachers,” said Justin Annunziata, the board of education president. “They are all working very hard under trying circumstances. It’s a reflection on the circumstances.”

That problem brought parent Kelly Stanziano to the school board meeting, where she asked the district to consider returning to the pass/fail grading system it used when schools first closed in March.

“Kids are failing,” she said. “I can either spend my minimal time at home trying to educate them, or I can spend two hours with them.”

She said the pass/fail option gives her “a shot” to help her improve academically during the pandemic.

McKay said the district’s staff feels it is important to give grades to make sure students were coming to classes, whether in person or on Zoom.

“They wanted grades that were given to be rewards in class,” McKay said. “They were adamant about giving grades in the first quarter.”

He said they did pass/fail in the spring because district officials were worried about giving students all they needed to be successful.

“Pass/fail, while a wonderful idea, guaranteed that some students weren’t going to take part as much in the process of learning,” McKay said. Teachers “were worried about the same things parents are worried about right now.”

’They’re not learning’

School board member Mark Cilli calculated that the high school is seeing a 30 percent failure rate among the hybrid cohorts and a 31 percent failure rate among students attending virtually. In Glen Meadow Middle School, there is a 28 percent failure rate among hybrid students and a 33 percent failure rate among students attending virtually. In the lower grades, students attending virtually failed at a 28 percent rate, and the hybrid students at a 16.9 percent rate.

Vernon decided last week, and Wallkill Valley this week, decided to go to an all-virtual format, with Sussex County is now in the orange, or high, range, as of Nov. 14.

“They’re not learning,” said Jennifer Pellet, a board of education member. “That’s huge. We need to improve.”

School board member Kelly Mitchell said pass/fail would give some relief. School board member Natalie Buccieri agreed but said it won’t improve learning.

McKay said teachers are giving students every opportunity to get their work. Teachers and administrators say the concern is that work isn’t being handed in, and that the children are shutting down.

Board of education member Brad Sparta said just switching to pass/fail isn’t going to help that problem.

“The only way to get our kids back is to have them in school,” said Superintendent Karen D’Avino. “The challenge is Covid right now. Virtual learning was not created as a substitute for teaching. That’s the situation we’ve been forced into. The only way things will improve is that they’re back with us.”

“Kids are failing. I can either spend my minimal time at home trying to educate them, or I can spend two hours with them.” Parent Kelly Stanziano