SOUTH PORTLAND — The South Portland Board of Education voted 5-2 against a proposal to change the high school grading system for the spring semester of 2020 to a pass/fail method.

The grading system would have been changed for all South Portland High School students to say that they had either “passed” a course or had provided “insufficient evidence” for passing, said Superintendent Ken Kunin. This was in response to the potentially difficult transition to online learning in the middle of March.

South Portland High School File photo

Kunin said that he supported the recommendation as it allowed a more fair opportunity for students to have a successful semester during the COVID-19 situation.

Members of the public, including parents, students, and teachers, told the board before the vote about their concerns they had about either changing the system or keeping it the same.

Claire Holman, a South Portland resident and teacher, said that she was in favor of the grading change and believed it would accommodate for some of the “most vulnerable students.”

“Students heading into colleges won’t be harmed,” she said. “Every school knows about COVID-19 and the consequences. I think we should more than anything consider that this rec was come to after a lot of thought and consideration. It’s the fairest to students, and it’s the fairest to teachers as well.”

Voicing an opposition to the change, resident Jeff Seltzer said that he spoke to college admissions offices at 30 different schools across the country, all of which said that number grades were more valuable data points when selecting candidates.

Another resident who was in opposition, Peter Stocks, said that when the recommendation had come forward in a previous workshop, the presenter never gave any alternative solutions or negative outcomes from a pass/fail method.

Stocks said that the superintendent hadn’t alerted parents to the change in various letters to the community that had come out over the past few weeks.

Motivation would drop if the current grading scale were to change, Wiley Roberts, a South Portland resident, said.

“How does pass/fail affect work ethic of student body?” he said. “Even though school is not only about grades, often times receiving grades is a motivating factor and so far the goal of learning just to learn will not hold true. During this difficult time, many students face distractions and lack of motivation, and in some cases knowing you can continue to improve grades is one of the few motivators left.”

On the opposite end, Lucy Hartley, a South Portland High School student, said that keeping the current grading system and standards would be “cruel and unfair.”

“Moving to pass/fail is not ideal, but these are not ideal circumstances,” she said. ” …  My second semester grades for junior year going unnoticed is a small price to pay for fairness.”

One of the two board members who voted in favor of the recommendation, Elyse Chiland Tipton, said that she didn’t believe that the pass/fail method would harm students in the long term.

“I think it would be a historic mistake for us not to go with a grading protocol that (says) that circumstances well beyond their control are making hundreds of our students vulnerable in significant ways, ways that have substantially impacted whether they can make the most of this emergency virtual learning experience,” she said.

Student representatives Rosalie Saffer-Meng and Fiona Stawarz said that while they supported the recommendation, they wished that the public, students especially, had more of an opportunity to discuss the issue. Saffer-Meng apologized that the issue was not handled with more “transparency and consideration.”

Board member Mary House argued that she wasn’t sure how anyone could yet guarantee that the pass/fail option would not harm students later on.

“Given that choice, I choose to put my trust in the great teachers we have,” she said. “Keeping the policy as it is, which is what I support, really puts the trust in our teachers. I trust in all cases that they’ll give students the benefit of the doubt.”

In a memo to the school board, Kunin said that if the recommendation failed, no more board action would be required.

“The high school will work to implement the existing policy and procedure as best as they can during a period of emergency remote learning,” he said.

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