SDUHSD Grading Policy Debacle – A Lose-Lose Situation for ALL Students
San Dieguito Union High School District prides itself on being an academic leader in Southern California. Students from its four high schools have routinely been accepted to prestigious universities across the nation. With high academic expectations and a reputation for delivering educational excellence, the high schools are a huge draw for people relocating to this area. Unfortunately, the SDUHSD academic standards have been reduced to a “one size fits all” level of mediocrity with their decision to implement a Credit/No Credit (C/NC) grading policy.
As in other districts, SDUHSD’s 13,300 students have been significantly impacted by the shelter in place order and subsequent closing of our schools on March 13, 2020. In addition to missing out on traditional school activities, students have been forced into an isolated, stressful situation with little control over their future other than the effort they put into distance learning schoolwork and the grades they earn for this investment. However, unlike the surrounding districts of San Diego USD, Carlsbad, San Marcos, Escondido and Coronado (to name a few), our district is increasing student stress level by mandating EVERY student be forced to accept C/NC for their second semester/fourth quarter efforts in Spring 2020.
This policy denies individual achievement and ignores the students’ strong commitments to academic excellence. Under this policy, students taking college level AP classes who maintain A’s will be given a “credit” on their permanent records the same as a D- student in a class studying high school level material. Due to this inequitable policy, the SDUHSD students and their families are requesting a policy change to one offering a choice between grades or C/NC.
Communication of Grading Policy a Complete Failure
The development and communication of the current grading “policy” of C/NC have been complete failures on the part of our district administration and Board of Trustees. Students were effectively blindsided by the current policy decision which was announced by SDUHSD Superintendent, Robert Haley, as students began spring break on April 3, 2020. This announcement was a complete surprise to the community based on his previous assurances to students and parents. On March 20, a week after school closings began, Haley emailed the SDUHSD community, “Our vision remains the same, all students are entitled to a successful education….” Recording all student grades as either Credit or No Credit is not a successful educational strategy because it provides no motivation for students to reach their full potential. One of the District’s major objections to offering a choice has been a need to avoid excluding students who require technological assistance to participate in distance learning. However, in Haley’s March 27th Coronavirus Update #14, he announces “As of Thursday, March 26, we had 12,185 students online learning in Google Classrooms,” indicating that 91.6% of our student population was already engaged in distance learning.
Students who needed computers were given free Chromebooks and hotspots were provided to the 70 students without internet connection. At risk students were identified through this process, allowing the district to address psychological, emotional and social services needs as necessary.
In the same March 27 email update, Haley stated, “To provide continuity in this time of uncertainty, we will follow the already-established 2019-2020 grade reporting window.” The superintendent then announced the adoption of a ‘hold harmless’ grading policy emailing, “Student grades will reflect all course content from the start of the second semester, January 29, 2020, through the March 13, 2020 school closure. Learning activities from March 23rd through April 3rd should not lower a student’s 3rd quarter grade from what it was at the time of school closure on March 13.” The ‘hold harmless’ grading policy, which countless California and U.S. school districts have adopted, does not penalize students for any difficulties and unforeseen hardships they might suffer after leaving the traditional high school learning environment. This policy treats every student equally. Everyone gets the grade they had when school closed and their grade can only improve through distance learning.
Since Haley issued this ‘hold harmless’ policy to address third quarter grades but referenced “second semester” course content, LCC and Torrey Pines, were expecting the same equitable ‘hold harmless’ treatment for their second semester grades. All four district high schools started second semester on January 29 and had completed the same amount of work through March 13. Equitable treatment would mean giving all students in each school the same grading policy.
Instead, after issuing this policy for “second semester” grades, Haley’s March 30 Closure Update and Grading Guidance email notes (for CCA and SDA only) “As both these schools are issuing final term grades for credit purposes, teachers have been given guidance on providing opportunities to improve students’ academic standing…As a district, we are striving for flexibility and discretion for our teachers and compassion for students to successfully conclude this academic quarter under these unprecedented circumstances.” The result was allowing only half the district high schools flexibility and the ability to “successfully conclude” their grading period by recording grades on their permanent records. In the same email, Haley writes “”We are working with other San Diego County school districts, and districts across the State of California, to ensure we provide fair and accurate grades in the 4th quarter and the 2nd semester” and then “We are aware some districts have adopted pass/fail grade systems, however, that may be premature as we do not know if that will have negative consequences.”
Based on these comments and the grades awarded to CCA and SDA students, there was no reason for students or parents at LCC or Torrey Pines to be alarmed and no indication our district would propose anything different at those schools.
Further, SDUHSD Community Members collected their own data from San Diego County High Schools - 78 traditional public high schools in total, of which 78% were offering grades. See Complete Table
Haley closes his March 30 email by stating, “We are aware that some students will struggle with the move to online learning, or may not have adequate resources, so we are developing plans to support those students. We do not want any student’s academic career negatively impacted by this sudden shift.” Unexpectedly, four days later, on Friday, April 3 after CCA and SDA’s grades had been finalized and posted, Haley changed the policy from ‘hold harmless’ to Credit/No Credit. On the afternoon of Friday, April 3, as spring break began, Haley sent an email with a simple note “Important information regarding grading and resources is posted on our website: www.sduhsd.net.” There was no letter or explanation like all the other emails and the link now points to an updated letter dated April 29, 2020.
There was no opportunity for input from students, parents or the Board of Trustees and no vote by the Board to adopt this policy. The decision was made by Haley alone. In the April 29, 2020 letter Haley now states, “…we cannot replicate a comprehensive school program in this current environment and the state guidance is to focus on essential learning standards for courses and preparing students for the next level. This reality necessitated a change in our systems that would serve all students.” Imagine being a high school junior at LCC or Torrey Pines on the verge of starting college applications and realizing the last grades factored into your GPA for consideration by college counsellors would be from January 29. All the effort put into the second half of that student’s school year will be labeled “Credit.” Now we are back to the “one size fits all” mentality. What happened to Haley not wanting “…any student’s academic career negatively impacted?”
Why can over 78% of High Schools in San Diego County replicate a comprehensive school program that offers a choice of grades but not SDUHSD?
There are many problems with the rollout of SDUHSD’s distance learning program. Haley’s communication regarding the grading policy has been misleading and full of discrepancies from the beginning. This C/NC decision sets a dangerous precedent for the fall if distance learning continues, as the same “obstacles” will still exist. Now is the perfect opportunity to offer grades on a ‘hold harmless’ basis since all students have traditional recorded grades from the beginning of the second semester. Without the motivation of grades, our students will fall even farther behind in their studies. Due to this pandemic, many colleges will not be weighing standardized tests (SATs and ACTs) in the admissions process, heightening the importance of letter grades. Denying students the option to record actual GPAs impacts where college applications will be sent (UC applications require a minimum 3.0 GPA), college acceptances, scholarships (GPA based), merit money (where a 4.0 is the minimum threshold) and much more. The Western Undergraduate Exchange (WUE) requires a minimum GPA to opt into their reduced tuition rates. All students, not just high achievers, working hard to improve their GPAs and on the verge of crossing these thresholds will miss the opportunity to do so if grades are not recorded this semester. Even UCs and CSUs are all offering their students the choice of grades or pass/fail. By not offering grades as a choice, we are greatly disadvantaging our college bound students. The majority of districts around us, including San Diego USD, Grossmont UHD, San Marcos, Carlsbad, Escondido as well as local private high schools and thousands of high schools across California and our nation, are giving their students a competitive advantage by offering grades.
Read here a detailed anaylysis of the inequity and harmful impact to 10th and 11th grade students by this C/NC.
Realistically, grades are key to motivating students to be engaged in distance learning. Offering grades gives teachers an attentive audience so they can teach meaningful content, improve accountability and measure individual achievement. Despite the community outcry to offer students a choice as demonstrated by student and parent speakers at the April 21 Board Meeting, multiple newspaper articles, television coverage, social media posts, 1000+ signature petition, a district office car rally, extensive research/data on other district and university grading policies, documentation of college admission requirements, and hundreds of emails and phone calls to board members, our elected board members (with the exception of Mo Muir) have been largely disinterested in the voices of their constituents. Board President Beth Hergesheimer has a responsibility to call for a vote so the Board can successfully represent its constituency and approve a grading policy change to right this grading debacle.
On May 4, notice of a special May 14 Board meeting was announced through email between School Board Members and we expect the grading policy issue to be an agenda item.
It is time the School Trustess (Board) do their job and address the concerns of their constiuents and the school community at large.
It is time to put students first, err on the side of caution and pass a second semester ‘hold harmless’ grading policy with a choice between grades or C/NC, ensuring equitable grading for ALL district students.