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Howard school board eliminates final exams for 2020-21 academic year, changes athletic eligibility requirements

The Howard County Board of Education voted last week to eliminate final exams for the 2020-21 academic year.

The decision was made due to challenges surrounding virtual learning amid the coronavirus pandemic and the shift the school system has made to a semester-based schedule for middle and high school students for this school year. The board passed the motion 7-1; member Chao Wu voted against.

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Student member Zach Koung, who raised the motion Oct. 22, said this year isn’t the “time to mess with kids.”

“Right now, as I’m sure all of you well know, there are massive inequalities in kids’ education opportunities,” said Koung, a senior at Howard High School. “One of my good friends, both their parents [became] unemployed and now they’re both working two jobs. To say they’ll have the same opportunity and playing field to take a final exam than someone who has the privilege like myself to not have to hold a job to support my family, that’s a big difference here.”

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Caroline Walker, the school system’s executive director of program innovation and student well-being, presented the plan to cancel final exams to the board during the meeting. Walker said the decision only affects the current school year.

“Students are feeling stressed with the situation we’re in right now,” Walker said. “This is a different system for them in many ways.”

In past years, midterms were given to middle and high school students — who took eight classes on a seven-period schedule — at the end of the second quarter and finals at the end of the fourth quarter.

In July, though, the school system approved a semester-based model with four classes in each semester for middle and high school students in the 2020-21 academic year, meaning finals would have been given at the end of each semester.

The issue with conducting finals this year, Koung said, is that one semester is in a fully virtual model while the other is expected to be in a hybrid model, which could leave a student’s overall grade up to chance depending on the difficulty of classes a student had in the first or second semester.

The school board is set to potentially vote on a hybrid plan on Nov. 19.

“If we go into a hybrid model, the kids in the second semester will have a different opportunity than the kids in the first semester, which isn’t really fair because kids didn’t choose what classes go in what semester,” Koung said.

“I think we need to be consistent for the year,” board member Kirsten Coombs said. “It wouldn’t be fair to have two sets of rules.”

While the vote only eliminates finals for the 2020-21 academic year, Koung said he doesn’t support finals in any year, citing Montgomery County’s decision to stop giving finals in 2015.

“I don’t support finals in a normal year because they don’t assess what we want them to,” he said.

The board also approved changes to the athletic eligibility requirements for the approaching sports seasons. For the first sports season this year, there will be no grade-point average requirement to compete. For the following two seasons, the previous quarter’s grades, as normal, will govern whether a student is eligible to play.

The change came a few days before the Maryland State Board of Education voted Monday to move up the start of the first high school sports season to Dec. 7, which allows three separate seasons of about the same length before the end of the school year. The decision moves the start date of winter sports up nearly two months. They were previously set to begin Feb. 1.

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Winter sports will now begin Dec. 7, with competitions beginning Jan. 4 and ending Feb. 13. Fall sports will begin Feb. 13 and conclude April 17, while spring sports are expected to begin April 17 and run to June 19.

Prior to the vote to eliminate finals, Wu, Vice Chairperson Vicky Cutroneo and member Christina Delmont-Small all offered varying options to help students improve their grades. Wu, who was the lone board member to vote against eliminating finals, wanted students to be given a choice on whether their final exam grade would be on a grade scale or on a pass/fail scale.

“Why not have different grading policies to give students some flexibility, to give them the option to have pass/fail or have a grade?” Wu asked.

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