Maze to Graduation: Lessons from the Class of 2020


Senior Jesse Wild rolls out of bed at around 8:30. His first class begins in an hour, and with a TA Zoom call in the afternoon and some homework to complete, his nights are usually free to play games with his family. Compared with the 7 am alarm and rushed mornings to allow for his 30-minute drive to school, this new normal seems like a dream. 

For Wild, classes moving online was less of an issue than his cancelled senior sports season. “I’ve played baseball since I was 7 years old,” he said, “and not being able to play for my senior season really hit home, just how severe this really is.”

As for at-home school work, his motivation has plummeted: “Lazy is definitely the right word,” he said. “There’s little to no motivation right now, for anything.” 

The Covid-19 pandemic is only the latest challenge for the class of 2020; from GPA mishaps to deleted freshman grades, this year’s seniors have faced a multitude of obstacles unlike any class before them. The class of 2020 will also be the first to graduate under the new proficiency-based grading system. For the past 3 years, the Chronicle has been documenting the implementation of this new grading system. Less than a month from graduation, and now with the additional challenge of students completing all their work at home, it’s still unclear how many students are at risk of not graduating. 

This story opens a two-part series tracking the experiences of a few seniors on their path to graduation. The goal is to take stock of what happened to the class of 2020 to see what lessons this graduating class can leave for U-32.

Questions we are exploring: 

  1. How many seniors are really at risk of not graduating?
  2. What support systems were offered to help students towards graduation?
  3. Have all pathways to graduation been equitable and fair?

Jesse Wild says it is still somewhat of a surprise that his class is expected to graduate under the proficiency-based grading system. 

 “I wasn’t expecting the system to be around for this long, if I’m going to be honest,” he said. “I was expecting it to fall off sophomore or junior year, but it’s still here.” 

This mindset played into his motivation, particularly freshman and sophomore year. For example, he “didn’t think we had to do any homework at all but then transferable skills started coming into play, and it was like, ‘oh that’s not good’. So it definitely was a turning point you could say.” 

Similar to many other seniors, Wild has mixed feelings about proficiency-based grading. On the one hand, he struggled with the initial transition and new expectations, seeing low grades and a low GPA despite working hard in advanced classes. 

“I had a 2.67, and I’ve been taking advanced level classes since freshman year,” he said. “So I don’t think it really shows the work that I’ve been doing.” 

After the administration inflated seniors’ GPA’s , he says his new GPA (a 3.17) reflects his work more accurately. 

Despite such challenges, he sees benefits to the switch. Wild greatly appreciates re-performance, as he doesn’t “really test well, so it’s beneficial to be able to go back and see where I went wrong,” and likes that transferable skills don’t play into his final course grade. 

Many seniors from the class of 2020 fall into this basket- seeing some positive changes but having to go through much trial and error along the way. 

Are there ways to lower the obstacles while keeping the benefits? Here are a couple of  takeaways from Jesse Wild. 


A Stacked Schedule Senior Year


 Junior year was when it hit Wild that the proficiency-based grading system was here to stay. 

“Right around the middle, the end of the semester, the English department came up with the checklist of the stuff that we had to get done for all the proficiencies,” he said. “And I was like, ‘I don’t have any of these.’ That really kind of flipped the switch to ‘I’ve got to get these done in order to graduate.’” 

This year, Wild’s course load was stacked with classes he had to pass in order to graduate, including three English classes. 

He says he wants to thank the English department for “getting their crap together and coming up with a ‘graduation portfolio’ so students can see what standards they need and what assignments they have to complete in order to meet the standard.” 

The big takeaway? “I wouldn’t recommend waiting until senior year to get serious about English or any other subject,” Wild said. “It created a ton of extra and unwanted stress for me and I don’t think it was the best option for me as a learner.” 

Wild said it would have been easier if he knew what was required earlier on, had it clearly explained, and could have planned his classes over several years, rather than enduring one final crunch. 


Unclear Expectations


One of the most complicated parts of the transition to proficiency was the multitude of learning targets, transferable skills, performance indicators, and rubrics. 

Before, students simply had to clock a certain number of hours in the classroom (obtaining a set number of credits) to receive a grade (on a 100 point scale). By comparison, the proficiency system has many more parts and pieces. For a student like Wild, there was no motivation to dive into the details. 

Wild says materials that were supposed to help him understand expectations only did the opposite. 

“I know freshman/sophomore year they started with the rubric system, which is a good idea, but most teachers made it way too wordy and not practical enough to be of any use,” he said. “So it was just difficult to understand what they were actually asking for. And of course, those changed from teacher to teacher so it was difficult to track what everyone wanted.” 

He says that concepts like learning targets didn’t mean anything to him. “They never really helped me at all so I kind of started ignoring them.” 

What would have been helpful? Simplify rubrics and clarify which parts students actually need to pay attention to. 


Cap and Gown?


As for graduation, Wild believes he’s on track. He’s talked with the teachers he needs standards from to ensure he’s doing the work required to earn proficiency. However, as classes have had to adapt and reorganize their curriculum during the pandemic, Wild says some of his teachers are saying they may not “hit” all of the standards their class advertised. 

Wild says although he’s been assured this is not going to mean that he’s not going to graduate,

 “I don’t know what to think.” 


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