San Dieguito approves new grading policy language

(File photo)

The San Dieguito Union High School District will give students the option for hold harmless grades or credit/no credit as they close out this unusual school year with distance learning.

At its previous meeting on May 14, the board had unanimously supported SDUHSD Vice President Mo Muir’s motion to alter its grading policy and have staff bring back the language and procedures back for board approval on May 21. At the Zoom board meeting May 21, the policy was approved with a 4-1 vote with Kristin Gibson opposed.

The change in the district’s credit/no credit grading policy was prompted by a public outcry that included thousands of emails and petition signatures, a drive-by rally at the district office and threats of board member recalls.

“It’s been a hard week for staff and our board. For every email that we got saying ‘Thank you,’ there were emails with other stories,” SDUHSD President Beth Hergesheimer said. “It was going to be hard to make everyone happy and I know we did not but I do think staff has spent a long, solid week trying to make sure that there’s no harm and that all students have a way to address concerns for their personal grades.”

Per the newly approved grading policy, for those students who opt to receive grades on their transcripts, their grades can be improved but they will not be lower than those earned by March 13 for semester-basis high schools; for the academy high schools, grades can not drop lower than third-quarter grades earned through April 3. The middle schools will continue using the credit/no credit system.

The new policy outlines the process for students to request letter grades for each individual course; the default will be credit/no credit.

SDUHSD Associate Superintendent Bryan Marcus said the policies and procedures were crafted with the considerations that students and staff have not been operating under the system for the start of the fourth quarter and students may not have been able to maintain grades in this distance learning environment. Marcus said they also considered that colleges or programs may assume a student who elects credit/no credit has a lower grade.

SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley said the board and staff listened to multiple perspectives on the issue and the decision was not easy. He said everyone wants what is best for all students and he firmly believes that all 10 school principals will work with teachers and will protect all students during this time.

“There’s no one voice, there’s no one decision that everybody is in agreement with. We acknowledge that. This is a very difficult time and a very difficult decision, we’ve never had a pandemic school closure and, hopefully, we will never have one again,” Haley said. “I’ve heard overwhelmingly from students that they need to be back in school…this is not the right way of learning.”

The board received 89 written comments and 44 requests to speak at the May 21 board meeting. The board limited public comment to 20 minutes and randomly selected 10 people to speak for two minutes.

Many public comments thanked the board for the decision to give students a choice. Without grades, parents and students argued that credit/no credit erased student progress and could negatively impact college admission and merit scholarships. In his written comments, Matias Clotfelter Bastias, a junior at Torrey Pines, said he is taking five AP classes this year and with a credit/no credit system, his GPA would take a “major hit.”

“I have continued to work hard over this online schooling session in case there was a chance for my grades to mean something. I feel like I have earned the ability to choose whether or not I would like to show the colleges my hard work and dedication. Having just the credit/no credit system greatly impacts high-achieving students from being able to separate ourselves and make us look more competitive.”

Student Noah Corsinita said he was “incredibly stressed out” thinking that his grades for this semester would not count and was grateful for the board’s decision.

“There are too many things right now that are out of our control. A choice for grades is a huge relief,” Noah wrote.

Many comments the board received were against making the change to choice and questioned the timing. Some parents and students felt that the decision was made too hastily and without enough public input—in her comments, parent Cynthia Rajsbaum wrote that the grading policy was first published by the district on April 3 and reaffirmed on April 29—“There was no notice that a drastic change was being considered.”

“The decision made by the district to change the system of grading only four weeks before school ending is a massive betrayal of trust of the student body and a decision made without full student support,” said student Ryder Leff. “There is a serious lack of representation, trust and equality from the district to the student body and the district should move to go back to the previous system of a mandatory pass-fail.”

Canyon Crest Academy student Mason Holst argued that the decision fails to ensure that all students have equal access to learning and grading opportunities and disadvantages students who, maybe due to a lack of access to adequate technology or to the burden of household tasks like babysitting their younger siblings, find it more difficult now to achieve the same grades that they would ordinarily.

“These students will now be forced to either receive these suboptimal grades and see their GPA suffer; or to explain to colleges why they opted for a credit/no-credit grading option when an alternative was available,” Mason said.

Many comments also addressed the pressure and stress this decision for grades or credit now places on students.

Parent Kristi Griffith shared that after the last board meeting, parents joined one of her daughter’s Zoom classes, demanding information on boosting grades since grades were now an option. In her comments, teacher Jocelyn Peck said with the new option, she has also already witnessed students feeling pressure in a negative way and is hearing a shift in student purpose that is more focused on scores and grades rather than learning and understanding concepts.

“I strongly believe setting up a system that puts pass/fail at odds with letter grades will induce a hierarchy that students do not need right now,” Peck wrote.

Gibson, the sole vote against the new policy, said she said she still believes credit/no credit was the better option and to shift to letter grade at this late stage will be difficult for teachers and students.

With her vote, she shared a message for students: “Grades don’t define you. They’re at best an imperfect way for teachers to communicate with students and identify areas of growth and areas of strength.”