San Dieguito high school students petition for A/A- grading system in wake of pandemic

The San Dieguito Union High School District board live streams their board meeting on March 19.
The San Dieguito Union High School District board live streams their board meeting on March 19.

Students in the San Dieguito Union High School District are petitioning the district to give all students either A’s or A- grades instead of the district’s current plan: to use a credit/no credit grading system.

San Dieguito, like many California districts, has temporarily adopted more lenient grading practices after the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools and disrupted learning nationwide.

The district said it is sticking with its credit/no credit grading system, which many other California districts have adopted and which California’s public colleges and universities are accepting for use in admissions.

Two juniors at Torrey Pines High — Jungwoo Seo, 16, and Henry Shear, 18 — are leading the petition effort, which had about 400 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon, April 15.

“Students weren’t given a choice in what we wanted,” Shear said. “I know that I would prefer to have a grade for the work that I put in for a semester, not just credit for doing the work.”

State guidance to schools stresses that whatever grading system they choose, students’ grades should not be harmed because of the school closures. Educators say this is important considering that many students lack resources such as a computer, internet access, or the home environment needed to adequately participate in learning.

California’s public university systems have said they will accept credit grades in lieu of letter grades for this spring and summer.

But Jungwoo argues that not having a letter grade could still disadvantage students when applying for scholarships or competitive internships.

Jungwoo and Shear said they’re also concerned that teachers can give students no credit for courses during the pandemic and force students to retake a class.

It wouldn’t be fair to give no credit to students now for equity reasons, Jungwoo said, considering that students may be unable to do schoolwork because they are sick, lack technology access or have other disadvantages.

Shear added that students are getting uneven amounts of instruction and teacher interaction during distance learning.

For example, Shear said, some of his teachers have been giving him schoolwork and some have not. He hasn’t heard from one of his Advanced Placement teachers in more than a month, even though he’s planning to take the AP exam for that subject next month.

“Everyone in my class is freaking out about the AP exam because there hasn’t been any sort of communication,” Shear said.

Jungwoo and Shear said they want the district to adopt a Double A grading policy, which would give all students either an A or an A-. There are more than a dozen petitions calling for colleges and universities across the country to adopt Double A.

San Dieguito Union High Superintendent Robert Haley said in an email he doesn’t believe the credit/no credit system will disadvantage students.

“We want all of our students to have every opportunity to get credit for their coursework this spring and opportunities to make up credit if needed,” Haley said. “While we have empathy for students who were working hard this semester to raise their grades, we do not believe our students will be negatively impacted or be at a disadvantage by adopting this grading system.”

Individual teachers will decide if a student has demonstrated understanding of “essential learning outcomes,” Haley said, and the district is working to ensure as much consistency as possible in grading across school departments.

San Dieguito enrolls roughly 13,000 students at 10 middle and high schools.

Haley said that Palo Alto Unified, a high-performing district, adopted credit/no credit after consulting with Stanford University and UC Berkeley. Many other California districts followed suit.

A week after Palo Alto Unified’s grading system choice, the University of California and California State University announced they will accept credit grades in lieu of letter grades.

Haley said San Dieguito chose credit/no credit based on guidance from California’s public colleges and the state education department.

Several other local school districts — including the county’s largest, San Diego Unified and Sweetwater Union High — say they will continue to give their usual grades during distance learning.

But the grades will hold students harmless, they said, meaning a student’s work can only raise their grades and no student will earn a lower grade than they were earning as of the last day schools were physically open.

Haley said San Dieguito did not choose this grading system because he thinks it “will inevitably lead to inflated grade point averages.”

Sweetwater spokesman Manny Rubio said hold harmless grading is in line with state guidance and does not necessarily mean grades will rise. Students’ grades will remain the same unless they put the work in to earn a higher grade.

“I wouldn’t classify it as an inflated grade. I would say it’s an earned grade, because it also reflects work they’ve already done,” Rubio said. “We’re not starting everybody off at an A. We’re starting off everybody off right where they were.”

— Kristen Taketa is a reporter for The San Diegu Union-Tribune