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City’s approach to assigning credits allows for fresh starts, but increases frustration

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

At the end of January, high school students are usually up in arms about their grades. There’s a good reason: transcripts have a lot of power to validate students’ work throughout the semester or become a self-fulling prophecy of failure.

If I hadn’t taught in Philadelphia for four years before moving to Brooklyn this year, I wouldn’t have given any thought to the fact that students at most high schools here, including mine, earn credits for their classes each semester. Coming from a system where students earn credit for a course only at the end of June, I’ve noticed that this seemingly small difference has a significant effect on students’ emotions and motivation throughout the school year.

In Philadelphia, my students simply kept track of the mid-year grades on their report card, but they knew those grades were not yet official. Students who weren’t happy with their grades could aim higher over the next five months in the hopes of earning full credit for the course at the end of the year.

As a teacher at the Brooklyn School for Collaborative Studies, I watched students who didn’t receive passing grades respond with disappointment and, in some cases, anger at their teachers when grades came out in January. I realized that here, failure at the end of first semester signifies the loss of a credit, one that, in most cases, students can’t make up by working harder during the second half of the year. Instead, they have to make up the credit by repeating the class, attending summer school, or participating in another credit recovery program.

There are merits to each system, and I’m not sure which makes more sense in the long term.

On the one hand, students in Philadelphia have more time to transition into a class before receiving a definitive grade, and students who struggle during first semester know their performance during the second half of the year can have a real effect. Stress around grades only peaks once rather than twice per year.

On the other hand, at my school in New York, the possibility of losing a credit first semester means that students prone to procrastination–as many are–have an incentive to make up missed work toward the end of first semester. A student here who fails a class gets a fresh start second semester, whereas a student in a similar position in Philadelphia might not have the drive to dig himself out of that hole. I’ve also noticed that when students’ fall semester grades have already cost them a credit, they approach mid-year conferences more seriously than their counterparts in Philadelphia, whose poor behavior or performance haven’t yet formally affected their credits.

It seems unlikely that this policy will ever make it to the top of the policy-making agenda in New York City, but it should be part of the conversation. Like many seemingly small decisions, when students receive credits has a real impact on their learning.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.