COVID Grading Policy Fails WA’s Most Underserved Communities

Alemayehu Bahta
3 min readMay 15, 2020

How Grading During the Pandemic is Adversely Impacting Some Students

During one of my regular check-ins with my mentee who is a sophomore at Mt. Rainer High School in Des Moines, WA, I asked her how classes were going. Her response was a mix of the usual “classes are hard” with a new layer of complexity, “it’s hard to teach myself.” As the discussion continued, she shared that her internet was glitchy. Additionally, though her parents are at essential jobs, there is constant noise in the house since her other family members were all laid off.

Much has been written about the challenges of remote learning, but the students in my community have unique problems that haven’t been fully addressed. The conversation I had with my mentee is only one of many that I’ve had with other students and families.

These conversations got me interested in exploring how school districts in my home state of Washington were handling high school grading. My focus is on high school since these grades have a lasting impact on post-secondary options. The state’s Office of Superintendent for Public Instruction released a set of emergency grading guidelines that individual districts could adopt in their own way. The first guideline for high school grading according to OSPI’s guidelines is “do no harm.” So I wanted to investigate how the state’s largest districts were applying this principle and how my mentee and other students in my community would be impacted.

Analysis of WA 25 largest School Districts’ COVID Continuous Learning Grading Policies*

Grades A-B, or I:

The four districts with the most progressive policy are Seattle, Lake Washington, Bellevue, and Northshore. Seattle’s rational likely stems from their strategic plan’s focus on equity and students furthest away from educational justice and 32% of students in their district who come from low-income backgrounds. The other three districts, however, are some of the state’s most affluent districts and have the lowest percentages of low-income and ELL students which likely means these communities are the most likely to be prepared and able to handle distance learning.

Grades A-C, or I:

The nine districts (see dataset in the notes) offering the A-C grades are all in the greater Seattle area with 4/9 being in south King County. Interestingly the 4 districts: Highline, Federal Way, Kent, and Auburn, also have some of the highest percentages of low-income and ELL students. Highline has the 2nd highest ELL population from my analysis at 28% and Federal Way 4th highest percentage of low-income students at 66%.

Grades A-D, or I:

The remaining nine districts are nearly all outside of the greater Seattle area. However, like the A-C cohort, these districts also have high low-income and ELL populations. Clover Park and Pasco have the highest low-income populations according to my analysis at nearly 70% each.

I believe every district has tried its best to adopt the OSPI’s guiding principle of “do no harm” however when I look through data, I can’t help but see a trend. Students from underserved backgrounds are being punished by this pandemic. Not only are these students more likely to have families who work in essential jobs, but they are also more likely to have less reliable internet, care for siblings and have family members impacted by the coronavirus. The global pandemic is already exacerbating economic inequalities in our communities and this will likely be the case in our schools. The question to district leaders is, do you want this to be a moment where inequality once again grows right before your eyes or will you use this as a watershed moment where you used compassion and did no harm to the most underserved students in our society.

Note on sources:

· My data on low-income, ELL and enrollment size all come from the OSPI report card database found here

· Since there is no unified database on grading policy I created one by searching each districts website and that data can be found here

*Three districts that originally in the analysis did not have their grading policy online so I removed them from the analysis Yakima, North Thurston and Kennewick



Alemayehu Bahta

Education Nerd | Tech for Social Impact | Future of Work | Coffee Enthusiast