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caption: Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Washington.
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Roosevelt High School in Seattle, Washington.
Credit: Flickr Photo/Joe Wolf (CC BY-ND 2.0)/

Seattle Schools 'A' or 'Incomplete' grading policy inequitable, some parents and teachers say

Parents of special education students are protesting Seattle School District’s plan to give high school students grades of either 'A' or ‘incomplete’ during the school closure. Teachers, too, question the wisdom of the distance learning grading policy.

The school board voted Monday that high school students who make a concerted effort to take part in distance learning should all get ‘A’ grades.

Those who don’t put in enough effort - or who don't take part at all - are supposed to get grades of ‘incomplete,’ and have the opportunity to make up the work in the summer or fall.

The Seattle Special Education PTSA has called on the school board to amend the policy to ensure that high school students with disabilities do not receive 'incomplete' grades.

"Already, many cannot participate in the District’s learning opportunities during school closure due to the absence of supports and services in their IEPs and 504 plans," the group wrote in an email to the board.

"Through no fault of their own, they now face an additional penalty of being saddled with incompletes," the group wrote, calling it a "grossly inequitable predicament."

Anne Sheeran's son is a junior at West Seattle High School. He receives special education services, but most of those services are nowhere to be seen during distance learning, she said.

Sheeran's son has been having weekly check-ins with the case manager who oversees his individualized education program, she said. "But in terms of services and supports to support his learning, there's nothing happening at all," she said.

When it comes to distance learning, “Our everyday reality is that we're still looking for a foothold to participate," Sheeran said.

In proposing the grading policy, Superintendent Denise Juneau told the school board that district leaders "looked at this policy change very closely, with the overarching goal of minimizing harm to all of our students during this extraordinary time," and "a particular eye toward the students furthest from educational justice."

But many teachers question whether 'incomplete' grades set students - or educators - up for success.

At a teachers union representative assembly meeting Monday attended by an estimated 150 educators, an informal poll showed that only 2 percent thought students should receive 'A' or 'incomplete' grades.

"Many [union] members are concerned with the harm that could come from 'incomplete' grades," said Lauren Ware Stark, who teaches English to non-native speakers and humanities at Cleveland High School.

"It's asking the kids who are already struggling and the furthest away from educational justice to basically be doing double work, making this work up while also taking classes next semester," said Olivia Geffner, the social studies department chair at Franklin High School.

"There is also no plan at all for supporting those students once this school year ends," Geffner said.

The Seattle Special Education PTSA questions whether blanket 'A' grades may disadvantage some students with disabilities, as well, by suggesting that their children were adequately served this semester. By law, students with disabilities must receive the services promised on their individualized educational programs, or get the services made up at a later date.

"We also request an immediate amendment to the policy to make explicit that an 'A' under these circumstances does not mean that an IEP student received the supports and services they were entitled to," the group wrote to the school board, and said students must not be denied compensatory education, tutoring, or other services once school reopens.

"Their concerns are what everyone's concerns are right now," said board member Lisa Rivera-Smith, "and that's how this is going to play out." Rivera-Smith voiced skepticism about how equitably students would be graded under the newly-adopted policy, but voted in favor of it, she said, given district assurances that the plan was carefully thought out and would be carried out fairly.

"Our curriculum and instruction department is quickly and earnestly working on the implementation and procedure plan for this grading policy," Rivera-Smith said, and expects details soon.

"I am hoping they put their money where their mouth is," Rivera-Smith said.