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Students, parents protest SDUHSD’s credit/no credit grading system

San Dieguito Union High School District administration offices.
(File photo)

La Costa Canyon High School parents and students are speaking out against San Dieguito Union High School District’s credit/no credit grading policy during the period of distance learning.

Of the 28 speakers during public comment at the board’s April 21 Zoom meeting, all but one asked the district to give students a choice between credit/no credit or earning their grades for the last months of the school year. Students and parents argued that giving students a choice is the most equitable policy for everyone, given the weight that will be placed on grades for college applications now that colleges have dropped standardized testing requirements. All of the student speakers were juniors, asking for letter grades in what they said is the most crucial semester of their high school careers.

On the morning of April 27, they also held a drive-by protest in front of the district’s offices in Encinitas.

The majority of student speakers talked about how the new policy undermined their efforts to build their GPAs. LCC junior Siobhan Gallagher said after the school closures it was a huge relief to learn that the standardized tests would be optional and that all she had to do was maintain her “beautiful 5.0 GPA for one last quarter.” She was shocked to hear that would no longer be possible.

“I was relying on this semester to bring up my total GPA as my fall semester GPA was not at the standard I wanted and needed it to be at,” said Siobhan, adding that she was speaking on behalf of students “stuck in the middle, the ones who work hard for the grades they deserve.”

“We have worked too hard for it to be thrown away,” echoed LCC junior Erica Strohm.

Erica said her grades in high school didn’t start off well as she struggled a lot in her freshman and sophomore year. She said she has worked hard to show progression and to get straight A’s this year—she said she needed this last semester’s grades to get into a good college. “This pandemic has caused too much stress already,” Erica said. “Please allow us the opportunity to still work hard for our future,”

Some students said that the grading system change left many students feeling uninspired and that their hard work would not be validated—one of those students was LCC junior Dylan Baurle, who is in six weighted classes this semester, five of them AP and one honors.

“The reason the current credit-only option upsets me is because without the reward of my GPA being boosted from these difficult classes, the high-risk, high-reward system is being thrown out the window for me and all that’s left is the difficult workload with no beneficial reward,” Dylan said. “At that point there’s no discernible difference between my schedule and anyone else’s.”

LCC junior Taylor Putnam added that a credit on a transcript would translate to a C- or better, an “average” grade, that will not be competitive on college applications.

“For the most part, this system benefits those who are not interested in putting in the work for an A. This is a system where an A is equal to a C and that is not a system that I would expect our district to endorse,” Taylor said. “It is a poor reflection of the hardworking students in our district. I do not want a pass, not on my schoolwork or anything in life... I’m an A student, not a pass student.”

Parents and students also wondered how credit/no credit will affect eligibility for merit scholarships.

“I really want to get a scholarship to help take the burden off my dad because a lot of the money he makes goes to pay for my mom’s cancer bills. There are a lot of families out there who not only want their children to get a scholarship but also need a scholarship,” said junior Josh Kabo. “I’m not asking for an unearned A…I’m only asking you allow me the choice to opt into getting the grades I worked very hard for so I can stand a chance to get into college.”

On April 3, SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley announced the decision for credit/no credit grading for the fourth quarter and the second semester. Haley said the grading policy was developed in the “best interest of all students” with principals, instructional leaders and the San Dieguito Faculty Association and in consultations with districts across the county, state and country, including Poway, Carlsbad, Vista and Oceanside and Carlsbad Unified School Districts. It was not a board vote.

While Carlsbad initially went credit/no credit, on April 22, the Carlsbad Unified School Board voted to switch from credit/no credit to a choice between traditional letter grades and credit/no credit.

“The current stressors on students and families are unprecedented and ongoing,” Haley said. “We can’t replicate a comprehensive school program and, therefore, there is no clear way to grade all students under the traditional manner.”

Haley said he has spoken to admission counselors from colleges who have said the grading systems with choice may end up having a negative impact on some students. He said his decision was also informed by input from the military, NCAA, employers and public and private colleges, including California community colleges, CSU, the UC system and the Association of Independent Private Schools. “All of whom have confirmed that in moving to credit/no credit applicants will not be adversely impacted,” Haley said.

“It has been consistently stated that students will always be considered in the local context of their own school system not compared across school districts with different grading systems,” Haley said. “Colleges throughout the country have made it clear that students will not be penalized for missing standardized tests, changes to coursework due to distance learning or for posting credit/no credit on transcripts this semester.”

SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir said she pushed for the grading change to be an action item on the board’s agenda that day for the board to vote on.

“The parents, students and the community have been left out (of the decision), they have not been consulted on this,” Muir said. “I do think it is a disadvantage not having a grade. The children need to choose. They have been working hard their whole life, this is so important. Everything is in a free fall and this is the only thing that they have.”

Muir said she would’ve liked the superintendent to have consulted the parents before any decision was made and, along with Clerk Melisse Mossy, asked for district-wide surveys of parents, students and teachers to be done on the grading policy. One student has already taken the initiative to start his own online survey at bit.ly/2YcJSRs.

Mossy said she has heard from mant students who feel very affected and wondered if there was an option where less students would be negatively affected.

“I don’t know that there’s a perfect option but especially for a student that is taking a class of extra academic rigor like an AP class, not having any reward academically for that does seem unfair. And it could possibly effect scholarships and that is life-changing,” Mossy said.

Haley said he knows that districts are considering many other grading systems such as A/A-, graded with hold harmless (meaning grades cannot go down, only up), pass/fail, all students get an A, students get a choice and others— he’s aware of two California districts that doing “high-stakes grading,” meaning that students’ grade can go down. Haley said all grading systems have positives and negatives. Hold harmless, which is being utilized by San Diego Unified School District starting April 27, has the potential to lead to GPA inflation which colleges and universities may discount, he said.

“Our recommendation of credit/no credit is consistent with guidelines from the state as we want to ensure no student is adversely impacted by school closure,” said Haley. “The shift to distance learning is not normal and has resulted in profound differences in student circumstances.”

SDUHSD President Beth Hergesheimer said she knows a lot of students and families will be impacted by their decisions and any decision they make needs to be fair for all students.

“We’re trying to represent all 13,300 students in our district,” Hergesheimer said. “I do think colleges and universities are going to find other nuanced ways to distribute their dollars and their seats.”

Jungwoo Seo, a junior at Torrey Pines, is one student who has advocated for the A/A- grading policy—he circulated a petition asking for the district to consider the system in which all students would get an A or A-; the petition had been signed by 741 people at press time. At the April 21 board meeting he said he did not support the idea of giving students a choice as he said it would create an unfair stigma—those who opted for credit/no credit might be considered less deserving than those who opted for a letter grade. Jungwoo also spoke out on behalf of students who are struggling with “unparalleled amounts of pressure” during the pandemic, including financial instability from the unemployment crisis, the possibility of a deceased loved one as well as anxiety and alienation caused by the stay-at-home order.

“Even students who might have otherwise gotten A’s might not have the ability to do so because of these outside constraints,” Jungwoo said. “Students without internet access, stable housing or food security may be forced to choose pass/fail because of their unique situation and, alternatively, students who don’t have the ability to stay academically afloat during this crisis may still feel pressure to display a letter grade that is not representative of their full potential for the fear of stigma associated with pass or fail.”

In the board’s update on the COVID-19 response, it was reported that the learning environment is not always consistent for all students. SDUHSD Assistant Superintendent Mark Miller said that the district has handed out over 1,000 Chromebooks and is planning another distribution this week as they heard from families who don’t have enough devices in their home or devices have broken down. Student support specialists have been reaching to the district’s homeless students and, additionally, around 70 students do not have WiFi access. The district is in the process of providing virtual hot spots to them in the next couple of weeks—there is a backlog in orders due to the pandemic, Miller said.

SDHUSD Trustee Joyce Dalessandro agreed with Jungwoo’s point about there being an uneven playing field for kids who do not have access and cannot keep their scores up due to their circumstances. She believes credit/no credit levels the playing field, “letting prior courses speak for themselves for very bright students.”

“The flip side of that is that we’re now penalizing kids who are high-performing when you say ‘level the playing field,’ thats where the problem comes in,” Muir countered.

In her comments, Trustee Kristin Gibson said there’s not a perfectly fair way to grade that is going to equally advantage or disadvantage students.

She said in the long run, schools may have to discount spring 2020 because there is no reliable way to get a measure of a student’s progress or success.

“Something has happened that is unprecedented. We’re trying to apply how things used to work to the way they are now. To some degree we’re going to have to have some faith in our universities that they are not going to disadvantage kids from any district,” Gibson said. “Traditional grading is based on how kids perform in a face-to-face traditional learning environment. That’s not there anymore.”

“I’m really sorry that we function in a system that is so focused on competition, that is so much about an ugly rat race for our kids where grades and GPAs outshine any sort of joy for learning,” Gibson said. “My one hope is that perhaps out of this crisis we can rethink our values and practices and how we assess students and maybe come up with some more humane and authentic ways to do so.”

Following the meeting, Mossy stressed that she believes that the board must be given the opportunity to vote on the grading issue. She has asked for a special meeting to be held this coming week, however, as of press time, no meeting has been scheduled.

“I am one person, who is trying to do my best to advocate for children, and my job is to vote according to the needs and wishes of my constituents not my own personal opinion,” Mossy said.


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