Dear Legal Mailbag:

I am principal of a comprehensive high school, and my head is still spinning from all the changes that have come with the school closures as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. One recurring question my teachers have been asking is whether and how they should be grading their students in the challenging environment of distance learning. They think that maintaining the practice of giving letter grades will encourage students to participate more fully in the distance-learning plan. But they recognize that the changed circumstances make it difficult for them to grade students in an equitable way.

To complicate the situation further, my teachers also keep asking whether and how the seniors will be able to graduate. Some of them have noted that board policy in our district limits credits for online learning, but now all of the courses they teach are being provided online. They wonder if their students will really be able to get credit for the courses they are taking online.

Sincerely,
Looking for Answers
Dear Looking:

Look no further!  Legal Mailbag is pleased to answer these important questions.  The question of grading during this unprecedented time is left to the individual school districts, and you and your teachers will get guidance from your superintendent and board of education.  By contrast, graduation credit is available for courses taken online only if statutory requirements are met.

Interestingly, while grading is a major responsibility for teachers, there is only one statute that deals with grading, and then only in the limited situation of honors and advanced placement courses.  Specifically, Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-220g provides:

Each local and regional board of education shall establish a written policy concerning weighted grading for honors and advanced placement classes. The policy shall provide that parents and students are advised whether a grade in an honors class or an advanced placement class is or is not given added weight for purposes of calculating grade point average and determining class rank.

That’s it, the only statutory guidance on grading!  Otherwise, grading practices are left in the first instance to boards of education as a policy matter, and then to the individual teacher assessing student progress, subject to administrative supervision.  Presumably, you and your teachers are already aware of what, if any, board policies apply to grading practices in the normal course.  In this health emergency, however, you should also make sure that you and your teachers keep up to date with any guidance that your board of education and/or superintendent will provide on grading.

On April 7, 2020, Commissioner of Education Cardona sent out guidance entitled “Grading, Graduation Requirements, and Prescribed Courses of Study,” available online HERE.  In that guidance, the Commissioner addressed the question of grading and graduation requirements.  As to grading, Commissioner Cardona acknowledged that grading practices remain a matter within the discretion of the board of education.  However, he did make a number of recommendations.  Chief among them is the recommendation that grades for the current semester be on a Pass/Fail basis.  Within that recommendation, however, the Commissioner noted different options, including a straight Pass/Fail system, a Pass/Incomplete option (taking into account students whose circumstances may have prevented them from participating fully in distance learning), and Pass with Distinction option.

In addition, the Commissioner noted that the State Department of Education worked with colleges and universities in Connecticut to reach consensus on certain principles regarding grading in the second half of the 2019-2020 school year.  That consensus includes agreement that Pass/Fail grades will be accepted for work done through distance learning, that GPAs should be calculated only on work performed when school was in session, and that for seniors, GPAs should be calculated on grades earned through December of last year.

This guidance is persuasive.  However, under current law each board of education is free to establish expectations for grading, including special expectations for this semester as we work through this health emergency.  You and your teachers should check to see where your school district has landed on these issues of grading.

The guidance also addresses course credit, but largely refers to the statutory provisions concerning credit.  As compared to grading, these statutory provisions are quite prescriptive in defining what activities can be eligible for course credit.  Historically, credit has been granted as follows: “a credit shall consist of not less than the equivalent of a forty-minute class period for each school day of a school year.”  Conn. Gen. Stat. § 10-221a(f).  For some time, students have also been able to earn credits for online courses, but not for just any online course.  Rather, Conn. Gen. Stat. Section § 10-221a(g) sets out a number of conditions that online courses must meet to be eligible for high school graduation credit.  It provides that students may earn credit:

(6) toward meeting the high school graduation requirement upon the successful completion of on-line coursework, provided the local or regional board of education has adopted a policy in accordance with this subdivision for the granting of credit for on-line coursework. Such a policy shall ensure, at a minimum, that (A) the workload required by the on-line course is equivalent to that of a similar course taught in a traditional classroom setting, (B) the content is rigorous and aligned with curriculum guidelines approved by the State Board of Education, where appropriate, (C) the course engages students and has interactive components, which may include, but are not limited to, required interactions between students and their teachers, participation in on-line demonstrations, discussion boards or virtual labs, (D) the program of instruction for such on-line coursework is planned, ongoing and systematic, and (E) the courses are (i) taught by teachers who are certified in the state or another state and have received training on teaching in an on-line environment . . . .

When courses taken online meet these standards, credit may be granted.

Legal Mailbag notes that boards of education must adopt policies that require that online courses meet these standards to be eligible for high school graduation requirements.  Many boards of education adopted such policies before the current COVID-19 health emergency, and it will be important to make sure that these policies are up to date.  When instruction was largely in person, online courses were viewed as the exception, and some policies impose limits on the number of credits that can be earned through online courses.  It will be important that board policies are updated as necessary to assure that students will be able to earn high school graduation credit for all of their courses taken through distance learning.  Given your intellectual curiosity, Legal Mailbag sees that you are just the right person for this job in your school district.  You had better get busy.

Originally appeared in the CAS Weekly Newsletter.
Written by attorney Thomas B. Mooney.

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Photo of Thomas B. Mooney Thomas B. Mooney

Tom is chair emeritus of the School Law Practice Group and is active in all areas of school law, including labor negotiations for certified and non-certified staff, teacher tenure proceedings, grievance arbitration, freedom of information hearings, student disciplinary matters, special education disputes and…

Tom is chair emeritus of the School Law Practice Group and is active in all areas of school law, including labor negotiations for certified and non-certified staff, teacher tenure proceedings, grievance arbitration, freedom of information hearings, student disciplinary matters, special education disputes and all other legal proceedings involving boards of education. Tom is the author of A Practical Guide to Connecticut School Law (9th Edition, 2018), a comprehensive treatise on Connecticut school law, and two columns, “See You in Court!,” which appears in the CABE Journal, and “Legal Mailbag,” which appears in the CAS Bulletin.