During a heavily attended virtual school board meeting on Wednesday, April 15, Sequoia Union High School District trustees voted 3-2 in favor of moving to a credit/no credit grading system for spring and summer semesters, a move that has drawn mixed reactions from parents, teachers and students.
The school board considered two options during the virtual meeting: offering pass/no pass; or sticking to the usual letter grades, but holding students harmless for their academic performance after March 21, when distance learning was implemented because of the COVID-19 pandemic. District staff have stated that students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families 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 when it comes to learning from home, according to staff.
"The status quo of the (letter) grading system is not where we should be in this particular circumstance," said Superintendent Mary Streshly during the meeting. About 370 people participated through the teleconference service Zoom, with the grading policy being a major topic of interest to many attendees.
"During these times, we must allow for flexibility, and to a certain degree, leniency, given the various factors that are currently out of our control. We must take a culturally, trauma-informed lens as we shift to distance learning and in particular, as we determine how our students will be graded and/or assessed. We recognize that this learning environment cannot replace the in-person experience yet our goal is to maintain a level of learning so as to prevent regression or loss of learning," Streshly said.
This change in grading is a short-term, emergency solution during "desperate times for thousands of families in the district," Streshly said.
Trustees Georgia Jack, Alan Sarver and Chris Thomsen voted to enact a pass/no pass policy, while board President Allen Weiner and Trustee Carrie DuBois supported the hold-harmless option.
"I recognize the pain students feel when they're not getting recognized for their grades," Thomsen said. "We don't have a win-win option in this situation. You can't argue a large number of our students are not in an equitable position in the district."
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 in their schoolwork. Jarrett Dooley, the district's students services director, said during last week's meeting, that 15% of its about 10,000 students have not signed into Canvas, the district's online learning system.
Jack said 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, she said last week. She noted that she heard of one student whose parent spent 10 days in the ICU with COVID-19 and that many students don't have the mind-space to learn during this health crisis.
The school board met last week to discuss the possibility of changing its grading system temporarily. During that meeting, the majority of feedback from parents and students was that moving to credit/no credit would demotivate students and harm their chances of getting into college.
Staff recommended 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.
Teachers and students speak in support of pass/no pass
There were more voices in support of a credit/no credit system during the April 15 meeting than the meeting earlier in the month.
One in favor of moving away from grades this semester was Sequoia High School teacher Greg Schmid, who said some students have been left as the head of their households during most school days. They're responsible for siblings and worrying their parents will contract the virus. Students should not be penalized for their social or emotional statuses during this pandemic, he said.
Sequoia District Teachers Association president Edith Salvatore said her members supported moving to a pass/no pass grading system.
She pointed out that 1.6 billion students worldwide are out of school right now. "No one needs to worry about being competitive with another student. There should be recognition on transcripts that this was an amazingly difficult time to be learning."
Another teacher in support of the credit/no credit grading system said students don't have equitable opportunities to learn during this atypical semester. One example: a student forced to work over 30 hours a week at Starbucks to help support his family right now who can't focus on his studies.
One Menlo-Atherton High School student in support of pass/no pass said he felt that this grading system would ultimately benefit the student population as a whole.
"A lot of people who have access to these calls (the virtual board meetings) are people who come from privilege," he said. "People who don't have as much privilege aren't given the opportunity to participate."
Those in favor of letter grades
Some 1,047 people signed a Change.org petition as of the afternoon of Friday, April 17, urging the school district not to switch to a pass/no pass grading system this semester.
Two of the board members spoke at the meeting about why they supported sticking with the status quo grading system.
Weiner said there wasn't an obvious best grading policy during the pandemic. He did think that continuing with grades, and holding students harmless for their work, during the remote learning period would be a good way to reward students for their hard work.
"There is a huge correlation between academic achievement and learning," he said. "Kids who get better grades have learned and we should honor that."
DuBois said she didn't want to "pull the rug (out) underneath juniors" by changing the grading system.
Menlo-Atherton student Ainsley Gentile said that her "countless hours of hard work" this semester will go unrecognized with a credit/no credit grading system. It "discredits students who are trying to show academic growth," she said.
Concerns about student equity and grading in the district in general
The pass/no pass change has opened up a bigger conversation about student equity in the district. At the meeting last week, 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 and weren't particularly excited about learning.
DuBois said she'd like the community to talk about student equity in education as a whole.
"I don't think credit/no credit solves the problem right now," DuBois said. "I want to find out why in this rich, rich area – why do we have kids without computers; kids who need to choose between school and work? I want to go find those kids who are not in school."
Caroline Lucas, a parent at M-A and former Menlo Park City School District board member, wrote a letter to the Sequoia school board saying that many school systems need to place more of an emphasis on learning over earning grades. She said long term, the district could consider a standards-based grading system in which teachers measure students' mastery of well-defined course objectives.
"This crisis brings to the forefront the importance of moving SUHSD (Sequoia Union High School District) to Standards Based Grading," she wrote. "If the letter grades have become such an important motivator, then it's long past due to examine Standards Based Grading where students don't need letter grades to motivate them."
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by the Almanac, Mountain View Voice and Palo Alto Online here.