April 3, 2020
Dear Osprey Students and Families, 

Like schools and colleges across the country, we have been thinking about how we might adjust our grading practices to best support our students in this unprecedented time of the Coronavirus pandemic. After discussing the issue with faculty, consulting with colleagues across the nation, studying impacts of changes and considering our school’s values, we have determined that all classes for all students with the exception of Senior Humanities will move to pass-fail grading for the second semester of the 2019-20 school year.

We understand that this decision will be met with a range of feelings and questions and we’d like to take some time to address these as best we can. 

What key values guided our decision-making?
As we considered what grading should look like for this semester, the most important values that guided our process included:

  • deep, authentic care for the wellbeing of our students, staff and families
  • a strong belief in the critical importance of educational equity
  • knowledge that individualized, relevant and engaging education matters in the lives of young adults
  • a commitment to maximizing opportunities for our students through the college admission process

While AHS teachers have done outstanding work in transforming in-person, project-based curriculum to an online format, it’s certainly true that this is not the way we generally teach and learn at Animas. We’re all adjusting daily and our hope is that this move to pass/fail grading will alleviate some stress and anxiety for everyone in a uniquely stressful time. 

We know that the COVID-19 outbreak will impact AHS community members in a variety of unforeseeable ways, and that this will make it challenging for students to engage in their learning as they normally would. Our families may experience financial strain or job losses, family members may become ill and need care. Many Ospreys are feeling the very real distraction of anxiety and fear. Internet access is limited for some. Some families will struggle anew with obtaining reliable, adequate access to food and shelter. Parents working from home cannot support student learning as fully as teachers can when they are physically present in classrooms. With remote learning, teachers are not available to offer timely, effective support in the same way they usually can.

In short, the barriers that our students are facing right now are significant, and we feel it’s reasonable to expect that they will not perform academically in the same way they would under regular circumstances. The impacts of this pandemic will vary significantly from student to student and we believe that assigning letter grades this semester may more accurately reflect the reality in a student’s home than the student’s effort, learning and growth.

We recognize that grades can have value, including providing students with feedback that helps them grow, motivating students to excel and helping determine college readiness. After extensive conversations with college admissions representatives and study of communication coming from colleges and universities, we feel confident that an across-the-board move to pass/fail will not negatively impact AHS students’ college admissions. 

Why the exception for Senior Humanities?
Our hope is that keeping letter grades for Senior Humanities will help seniors maintain the motivation needed to complete their Senior Projects in a way that prepares them well for the rigors of college and makes them really proud of their accomplishments. Senior Project is the culmination of four years at AHS and second semester Senior Humanities’ grades are a reflection of all three aspects of Senior Project--Senior Thesis, Senior Action Project and TED Talks. Senior Theses are due on Monday and seniors have been working on these college-level papers for weeks. Ultimately, we are keeping letter grades for Senior Humanities to ensure that we’re setting students up for postsecondary success. 

Why not give students the choice of pass/fail or letter grades for the semester?
We considered offering students the choice of keeping letter grades or moving to pass/fail, but ultimately determined that this felt unfair to students who are most impacted at this time and who might choose to apply to selective colleges. We checked with selective colleges across the nation and they indicated that if we were to give students the choice, they would view opting for pass/fail as a less rigorous path. We don’t feel it’s fair or equitable to make a student choose between potentially limiting college options or maintaining their own personal health and wellbeing.  

Without grades this semester, what will motivate students to engage in remote learning?
We understand that some may have concerns that removing letter grades will lead to students “slacking off,” and while it may be true that removing the pressure of grades will impact how students engage in their coursework, we have faith in our teachers and in our students. Animas is and has always been about engaging students through authentic work and utilizing our close student-teacher relationships to personalize the curriculum so that it matters to each student. This will continue, despite our school closure and shift in grading.

How will this impact transcripts and GPAs?
Students will receive either a “P” or “F” for all academic classes this semester, much as they currently do for XBlock classes. Pass/fail grades for this semester will not be factored into grade point averages.

How will this impact college admissions for our students?
AHS College Counselor Jess Morrison has been in close communication with college admissions representatives across the country. They have assured us that when they are making admissions decisions for the classes of 2021, 2022 and 2023, they will recognize that this semester is an anomaly. Colleges are communicating that they will not factor in this semester's classes and grades in making admissions decisions, whether a school stays with traditional grades or not. 

Here are a couple of examples of statements we’ve heard from selective colleges:

  • Columbia University: “Please be assured that Columbia Undergraduate Admissions fully supports the pedagogical and administrative decisions your school may make in order to assist your community through this crisis. For example, pass/fail marks or alternative grading methods in lieu of letter or numerical grades this spring will be accommodated when we review applicants' transcripts next year and beyond. We all have plenty of obstacles to navigate in the months ahead, and preparing paperwork for your college-bound students should be the least of your concerns."

  • Vanderbilt University: “There’s no doubt that high school transcripts for this year’s and future year’s applicants will look different. There will be pass/fail grades where there once were As and Bs. There will be tests untaken, chances to improve foregone, and letters of recommendation truncated. But as it always has been at Vanderbilt, context dictates how we read files. And in unprecedented times, context will take on unprecedented importance. You have our pledge that as this crisis evolves, so too will our use of context in the admissions process.”

In addition, the University of California , the nation’s largest university system, has eased admissions requirements , “suspending the letter grade requirement for academic classes taken in winter, spring or summer terms of 2020” because, as they put it, “The COVID-19 outbreak is a disaster of historic proportions disrupting every aspect of our lives, including education for high school students, among others. The university’s flexibility at this crucial time will ensure prospective students aiming for UC get a full and fair shot — no matter their current challenges.”

We know that the decision to move to pass/fail may be disappointing for students who have worked especially hard this semester to achieve As, as it may feel like they won’t receive the recognition letter grades would have provided. We will find ways to acknowledge that growth and effort; please rest assured that it will be remembered when teachers are writing letters of recommendation.

Are other schools around the country making similar decisions?
Yes, they are. And we will continue to see a variety of decisions around grading in the next few weeks. The debate and discussion is robust--and fascinating--as it raises critical educational questions about equity and the value of grading in general. Many colleges have already moved to pass/fail, others are offering students the option to choose pass/fail and still others are holding on to letter grades. K-12 schools are a couple of steps behind colleges and universities in making decisions around grading, mostly because they are still focused on the move to remote learning. 

Why not wait to make the decision until we know more?
Many K-12 schools and districts are choosing to wait to make a final decision about grading. As a small, independent charter school, we can move more quickly and with more autonomy in our decision-making. We feel that it serves our students and faculty best to make the call now so that we can proceed with more clarity around expectations.

What if I have additional questions or concerns?
We’ll host a Temporary Pass/Fail Grading Policy Q&A for Families two time next week , via Zoom, to provide students and families an opportunity to ask any further questions. We’ll be joined by Jess Morrison, who will share her perspective as college counselor.

Please create a free Zoom account and then use the links above to join either meeting. You are also welcome to reach out to either of us via email, of course.

These are extraordinary times, and we are working hard to strike the right balance between providing challenging academic work that keeps students intellectually engaged while also recognizing that this pandemic will impact students and families in ways that will cause priorities to shift for many. Please know that we are making all decisions with students’ best interests in mind, guided by the mission, vision and values of our school. We are incredibly grateful for the ongoing support and appreciation we have received from our students, families and board, and know that there is no other school community we'd rather belong to at this challenging time.

All best,
Sean and Libby