About 30 Sequoia Union High School District parents and students expressed displeasure with the possibility of a temporary transition to a pass/no pass grading system during a Monday, April 6, school board meeting. Missing from the conversation during the meeting held on teleconferencing service Zoom: socioeconomically disadvantaged families, who may face stressors that limit their abilities to be engaged with schoolwork. Letter grades could be unfair, as all students in the district don’t currently have the same opportunities learning from home, district officials noted.
District officials have proposed a shift away from traditional letter grades for the spring semester in light of the distance learning implemented because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The Palo Alto Unified School District moved to a credit/no credit grading system on March 25. Students will accumulate credits without positively or negatively impacting their grade point averages — of particular concern for college-bound seniors and juniors in Palo Alto.
Sequoia district staff suggested several options for grades during the semester: keeping letter grades; offering pass/no pass; or providing students with letter grades, but holding them harmless for their academic performance after March 21. Staff recommends that the board not consider allowing students to choose between a letter grade or pass/no pass option because it doesn’t provide “equity or relief during this time of strain” and could lead college admissions officers to rank lower the students who choose to take a course on a pass/no pass basis.
Although Facebook recently contributed $250,000 to the Sequoia Union High School District to provide 2,000 students access to Wi-Fi hotspots for distance learning, not all students seem to be engaged virtually in their schoolwork. Jarrett Dooley, the district's students services director, said during the Monday meeting, that 15% of its students about 10,000 students have not signed into Canvas, the district's online learning system. He's trying to gather more data on these students and said there’s a chance some of these students have been communicating with teachers to receive schoolwork offline.
Students in the district who are socioeconomically disadvantaged face multiple stressors, from slow internet shared with other household members to having to pick up extra jobs to help parents who may be out of work because of the virus, said Trustee Georgia Jack.
“There ton of reasons for these kids to have gone missing,” she said.
School board members said that students who choose a pass/no pass option over a letter grade may not be seen as favorably by college admissions.
The district recently conducted two surveys, over email, on the grading topic. One was taken of parents and students (getting 810 responses) and another of certified staff, which got 255 responses.
Parent and student responses indicated that schools were assigning too much distance learning work and that participants would prefer to stick to the current letter grading system, said Bonnie Hansen, assistant superintendent of student services.
Staff members supported adopting a pass/no pass system and also expressed concerns about that not all students have home environments that are conducive to participating in schoolwork. They are also looking for more clarity around academic expectations for students and staff and said they are managing more work, stress and demands in their personal lives, such as taking care of their own children while working.
“There’s been an outpouring of parents who’ve said ‘don’t get rid of letter grades,’’ she said. “There is merit to those concerns. … I wonder how we would be informed if we could see snapshots of our most socioeconomically disadvantaged students' (current situations).” She added that it might become more difficult for students, even for those who aren’t socioeconomically disadvantaged, to focus on school in the coming weeks if their family members become sick.
District officials plan to conduct another survey of parents, teachers and students before the board’s meeting next week that they hope will reach a broader group, by offering the survey in both English and Spanish through text messages. This survey will also include collecting participants’ demographic information.
Leaders of the Sequoia District Teachers Association, which represents teachers, librarians, counselors, nurses and others, have heard from some teachers who feel badly for the students whose hard work wouldn’t be rewarded with a letter grade, said union president Edith Salvatore in an April 3 email.
“While we haven’t had a formal opportunity to poll our members, those who have reached out have had concerns that a move to a pass/no pass grade for the semester will make it more difficult to keep students engaged in the learning activities being offered over the closing quarter of the year,” she said. “The concern is that while some of the more academically engaged students may continue, those who are less prepared or less positioned to lose two months of learning will tune out, which will widen the gap between them for the fall.”
Salvatore mentioned during the meeting that since the teacher survey went out over spring break, there might have been less participation.
In defense of letter grades
Some 765 people signed a Change.org petition as of the afternoon of Friday, April 10, urging the school district not to switch to a pass/no pass grading system this semester.
After hearing from parents and students during the meeting, Trustee Carrie DuBois said she would feel bad taking away letter grades from students who have worked hard. At the same time, she wants the board to prioritize reaching out to students who are disengaged in school right now.
Julie Quinlan, parent of a junior at Menlo-Atherton High School in Atherton, said she feels there is unfairness in instituting a blanket pass/no pass grading system at this point
“We’re well past halfway through the semester and the kids will feel their work has gone down the drain,” she said.
Parent Susannah Hill said she had a “very strong reaction” when she heard the district could institute a pass/no pass grading system because her son, a junior at M-A, “has worked extraordinarily hard this whole semester” and would like to see that work recognized. She said he’s now even putting in about 11-hour workdays with his distance-learning assignments. She thinks there could be other solutions, such as giving students a quarter grade for the first half of the semester to acknowledge their work up until the March shift to distance learning.
“I do feel like one size does not fit all,” Hill said. “M-A has an incredibly diverse group of kids and they never run a one-size-fits-all school and they shouldn’t run a one-size-fits-all (approach) in this situation.”
The meeting reached the Zoom call’s capacity of 100 participants, more than usually attend a typical board meeting. Superintendent Mary Streshly said next week the district will expand the number of people who can watch the teleconference at one time.
During the public comment period of the meeting, students and parents, mostly from Woodside and M-A high schools, said they didn’t want their hard work from the semester to go to waste.
Daniel Longo, a junior at Woodside High School, said moving to credit/no credit grading would “invalidate hundreds of hours of work.”
Mia Banks, who identified herself as a junior in the school district, said “pass/fail is crazy” and that it would limit future opportunities grades opened up for her.
“School system isn’t focused on getting students excited about learning”
Trustee Chris Thomsen said it was disappointing to hear that many students felt the purpose of their education was to earn good grades so they can be accepted into good colleges.
“The larger message says that we have a school system that isn’t focused on getting students excited about learning,” he said. With the current at-home distance learning situation, he worries teachers will ultimately be grading students based on what their home life is like.
Board Vice President Alan Sarver agreed with Thomsen, noting that he is “disturbed” by the value students are putting on their grades.
“Look at the damage done to students less present in this evening’s discussion,” he said. “We’re looking at balancing and mitigating the damage (of the move to distance learning) to students across a broad spectrum.”
Jack also noted that Advanced Placement tests in May are another way of measuring students’ hard work.
“People are going to hear things that are difficult to hear,” she said. “We have to make decisions beneficial to the entirety of the district.”
How grading system could affect college admissions
Streshly sent a March 27 email to families explaining that the school board will make a decision based on input from teachers, principals, instructional leads, district-level administration, and in consultation with university admissions officials and San Mateo County superintendents.
“In the next week, we are seeking confirmation from a broader higher education community that this change will not negatively impact the future of our high school graduates,” she said in the email.
There is still a lack of clarity from colleges on how they will treat grades for the spring 2020 semester when they are considering applicants, Hansen said. Harvard University has indicated that applications of students whose schools move entirely to credit/no credit systems will not be penalized, but doesn’t indicate how students who opt for credit/no credit over grades will be affected, according to a report prepared by district staff.
University of California, California State University and other colleges have said for spring/summer 2020 they will accept a grade scale of pass/no pass for student admissions if those are the options given by a high school, the report states. They do not say what will happen if a school offers the option of pass/no pass or a letter grade.
The board will provide direction next week on grading options at an April 15 meeting.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by the Almanac, Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Online here.