High school students studying in some of California’s largest school districts will no longer be given a D or F grade for poor work, and will instead be allowed to take the tests or complete the work again.
The new system has been introduced due to the pandemic, with supporters arguing that it reduces the stress levels for already-traumatized and unsettled students.
Proponents say it will particularly help black, Latino and lower-income students, who have statistically been disproportionately affected by pandemic upheaval to school routines.
Critics say that it dumbs down education, leaving students unequipped to cope with the harsh realities of the modern world.
The scheme was first reported at the beginning of this month by Ed Source.
Nidya Baez, assistant principal at Fremont High in Oakland Unified (right) and Devin Vodicka, chief executive of the Learning-Centered Collaborative, have both backed the scheme to get rid of D and F grades
A student is seen on March 24 taking her exam at St Anthony Catholic High School in Long Beach, California. Several California school districts have now decided to get rid of D and F grades
Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified, Sacramento City Unified and Santa Ana are among the school districts trialing the new way of marking, the site reported.
‘Our hope is that students begin to see school as a place of learning, where they can take risks and learn from mistakes, instead of a place of compliance,’ said Nidya Baez, assistant principal at Fremont High in Oakland Unified.
She told the site: ‘Right now, we have a system where we give a million points for a million pieces of paper that students turn in, without much attention to what they’re actually learning.’
The new system is known as ‘competency-based learning’.
Debora Rinehart, a math and science teacher at St. Theresa School, a Catholic school in Oakland, said she thought removing the lower marks was akin to lying to students about their true level of achievement.
‘I will work with any student before or after school or even on the weekend to help them learn. However, I will never lie about their knowledge level,’ she said.
‘Not reporting Ds and Fs is the equivalent of lying about a student’s progress.’
However, Devin Vodicka, a former superintendent of Vista Unified in San Diego County and chief executive of the Learner-Centered Collaborative, which promotes competency-based learning, told Ed Source that the new system helped prepare students for the wider world.
‘We need a system that gets beyond the institutional model and provides more meaningful feedback for students,’ Vodicka said.
‘The future is going to require less focus on time and more focus on what we can do and contribute, and the quality of our performance. We need to prepare our students for this.’
Students in Sacramento School District are seen in class. Sacramento is among those to get rid of classic grading systems
Another supporter, Patricia Russell, of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, said that 400 school districts have now joined their organization, which promotes alternatives to grades.
‘We’re talking about people who are very young, and labeling them at such an early age as ‘less than’ or ‘more than’ can have significant psychological repercussions,’ Russell said.
‘Some things in life are zero-sum games, but learning should not be.’
And Laura Schwalm, chief of staff of California Education Partners, said they hope the new scheme will broaden students’ horizons.
‘Graduating with a D, in career and technology courses, too, leaves students with few choices,’ she said.
‘No one is saying water down grades. This is about giving support, not lowering standards, and looking for simple ways to make grading more fair, to give kids a fighting chance and to measure what students know with multiple opportunities to show that.’
Ed Source reported that some teachers confessed to rarely giving D and F grades, while others used the low marks as useful tools.
Debora Rinehart, a math and science teacher at St. Theresa School in Oakland, said that the new system was akin to ‘lying’ to students about their achievements
Last year, San Diego Unified School District announced it was adopting the policy, which is designed to ‘provide students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their mastery,’ according to Nicole DeWitt, instructional support officer for the district, in a December 2020 meeting explaining the new thinking.
DeWitt said they had begun reassessing the practice of grading since 2018, but the pandemic gave the process added urgency.
San Diego’s board found, in early 2020, that black students received a D or F 20 per cent of the time and Hispanic students received them 23 per cent of the time, compared with 7 per cent for white students and 6 per cent for Asian students.
After a school board workshop in July 2020, a resolution demanded the district to ‘revise our grading policy to ensure that we have equitable grading practices,’ DeWitt said, and the new scheme came into effect in .
New York City has enacted a similar policy, with the Department of Education announcing in October 2020 that pupils will not get failing grades during the 2020-21 school year.
Instead, they are now marked ‘N’ for ‘needs improvement’.
Schools from grade eight upwards could choose to keep traditional letter grades or use the city’s new grading policy for students.
‘This year’s grading policy maintains a high bar for student achievement and keeps our students engaged while being responsive to the flexibility our families need in the ongoing pandemic,’ said Danielle Filson, DOE spokesperson, at the time.
‘Schools will select a grading scale that meets the needs of their community with a high expectation and the necessary flexibility to best support New York City students.’
And in October of this year, a school in Minnesota took similar action.
Sunrise Park Middle School in White Bear Lake released a YouTube video detailing its new grading system which it said, in part, helps fight systemic racism.
The scale goes from an A (any score above 92.5 percent) to an I (50 percent to 59.49 percent) but below that, a letter grade will not be used, including an F.
Associate Principal Norman Bell said that students are encouraged to retake and revise tests, quizzes, papers, projects, and have a 10-day window to do so after the date the grade is posted.
Grades also will not be increased or decreased over behaviors, attitude, tardiness, and whether the assignment was turned in late or on time.