“A” for Effort

Placing in-person and cyber students in the same classes was necessary this school year, but it could have unintended consequences on grades.


photo by D. Crickets

When students are in different environments, the disparity between in-person and online tests becomes an even more troubling issue.

I’ll be the first to admit that right now, it seems silly to care about test grades. In the midst of a pandemic and a hybrid learning model, it feels a little ungrateful to question the integrity of testing when I should be thrilled to attend in-person classes at all. Maybe I should just be happy that everyone is trying their best and have some faith that it’ll all even out in the end.

However, no matter how insignificant grades might be in the grand scheme of things, we’re still getting tests. They’re still getting scored. And those scores are still going on transcripts. So, just as we must be patient and flexible with regards to this school year, we must also do our best to ensure that those grades are as fair as possible.

And, right now, that may not be happening.

North Allegheny essentially has three groups of students this year: Cohort 1, Cohort 2, and North Allegheny Cyber Academy (NACA) students. Cohorts 1 and 2 alternate between in-person and live online classes, while NACA students attend virtual class every day. Originally, NACA was meant to be a separate extension of the district, but due to class demands and scheduling, many cyber students were integrated into normal classes, meaning they join whatever cohort is online that day.

As far as lectures and class time go, they are a great solution. Students who chose cyber school should not have been denied access to certain Honors and AP classes or electives.

Unfortunately, in regard to testing, combining NACA and in-person students creates a disparity.

Many teachers are alternating in-person test days between Cohort 1 and 2. For example, if Cohort 1 takes a test in the classroom, they will take the next one at home on their computers. By the end of the year, the grades will have essentially evened out, as both cohorts would have had the same amount of in-person and at-home tests.

Just as we must be patient and flexible with regards to this school year, we must also do our best to ensure that grades are as fair as possible.”

Cyber school students, on the other hand, are able to take every test online.

While I’m sure there will be a fair amount of academic integrity among my peers, I also know that, even with completely in-person tests last year, our school had a cheating epidemic. I’ve seen my classmates cheat right in front of me, so I have no doubt that some of them will use Google, their notes, or their phones to look up answers. And though in-person students will only be able to cheat on half of their tests for the year — which still seems like an incredibly high amount — NACA students will be able to on practically every exam.

Assistant Superintendent Dr. Melissa Friez said that, while integrity is always important, it was naturally not the district’s biggest concern when creating the cyber academy.

“I know that [cheating] is something that every teacher and every student has to deal with no matter what,” Friez said. “But really, we were focused on providing as many instructional opportunities as we could for students. We knew that there were families that the cyber academy was the only option.”

However, she added that if academic dishonesty becomes an obvious problem, students will be disciplined according to the Code of Conduct.

“Our hope is that, obviously, children do not cheat, because cheating is not going to be valuable to you in your life after North Allegheny,” she said. “But in the cases they do, we will definitely hold those students accountable.”

To try to curve the amount of cheating, some teachers have switched to a more holistic grading approach, focusing more on written essays and projects. Others are requiring students to be logged into Blackboard Collaborate and for their cameras to be on while taking the exam. But it all comes down to the individual class.

It leaves most honest students struggling with the difficult question of, if everyone else is cheating, am I at a disadvantage if I don’t? ”

“It’s up to the teachers to make the decision about what the instruction looks like,” Friez added. “Teachers may choose to do an essay instead of a multiple choice exam, or they may choose to still do the exam and send it out through something like a Google doc.”

This flexibility allows teachers to cater to their own students’ needs, but it also means that there is no standardized strategy to keep all students honest. There will be many cases where, out of pure oversight or even a little indifference, a teacher really won’t enforce academic integrity for his or her students. And that leaves most honest students struggling with the difficult question of, if everyone else is cheating, am I at a disadvantage if I don’t? 

Yet, in some ways, there will be a little more unity when it comes to grading at NASH this year. The district implemented a new policy that will make 30% of all grades formative (things like homework assignments and projects) and 70% summative (tests and quizzes).

“It’s something that we had discussed, and because students were going to be able to switch between cyber and in-person instruction throughout the school year, we felt it was important to have a standardized grading structure,” Friez explained. “We felt this was the best time to do it to ensure stability between the two programs.”

In many Honors and AP courses, this structure actually emphasizes non-testing points more than in years past, which is going to be incredibly helpful to students who may feel like they are at a disadvantage on test day. If the test cannot be completely fair and honest, it makes sense that it should have less on an impact on the total grade.

So, while there really was no better alternative (it’s a weird situation fit for the weird world we live in), it’s still important that teachers and students do their part to ensure that grades this year go as smoothly as possible. Maybe for some teachers, that means utilizing the camera to keep their students honest. Maybe it means focusing less on tests in general or temporarily ditching the curved grading scale. 

For students, perhaps we could all just try to be a little more honest in our academic endeavors. It can feel so worthless to study for a test that you could easily look up all the answers to, but doing your best and letting the cards fall where they may is a sign of respect for your peers and all the people working so hard to keep this hybrid model running. 

The important part is that we all put in a little effort. At the end of the day, I want to believe that’s what matters. No one, myself included, is expecting this year to be perfect. I am incredibly grateful to be back at school and glad that cyber schools student had the opportunity to do what was right for them.

However, recognizing and addressing any major shortcomings in the hybrid model is the only way to improve it. And while striving for a flawless system is futile, trying to create a more fair one only seems logical.