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High school district dumping letter grades for credit/no credit grading system during coronavirus crisis

Original post made on Apr 17, 2020

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 decision that has drawn mixed reactions from parents, teachers and students.

Read the full story here Web Link posted Friday, April 17, 2020, 6:02 PM

Comments (18)

19 people like this
Posted by Caroline Lucas, teacher
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 17, 2020 at 8:36 pm

It's sad to see our community divided at a time that is so difficult for us all. Children from all groups, are and have been, under tremendous stress for a long time.

Trustee Thomsen brings up a good point: What are we going to do about having large numbers of students motivated by letter grades? I realize that this doesn’t help the many students whose reality today is a world that emphasizes earning over learning. It’s not fair to have put our children in such a world in the first place. But perhaps we can collectively put some positive energy into considering a better path for our future classes.

Our high schools have not moved to standards-based grading, in part because our universities have never accepted mastery-based transcripts. I believe that high school educators are waiting for universities to change and take the emphasis off the numerical transcripts. However, the institutions to which we send our students would eventually accept students with these kinds of transcripts if high schools started sending them. I wonder if SUHSD will be in a position soon to consider whether evolving to a mastery based transcript might be advantageous? I don't propose to have the answer, but I am open to asking the question.


32 people like this
Posted by Andrea
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Apr 17, 2020 at 10:49 pm

It was disappointing and misleading, though i'm guessing unintentionally so, for our Superintendent to refer to the "Hold Harmless Grade Floor" solution as "the status quo grading system". And, likewise, it's misleading for this article to refer to this alternative to the Credit/No Credit approach as "status quo grading".
The "Hold Harmless Grade Floor"solution would have enabled students to be given a grade no lower than that they had earned prior to the beginning of Distance Learning, and if they were able to improve that grade through Distance Learning, it allowed for that. This would have been the most equitable solution, protecting ALL students, from the least advantaged to the most and the least accelerated to the most, from failing due to circumstances outside their control.
While no solution would have been perfect, from a student learning, student equity, and mental health perspective, the broadest segment of the student population would have been best served with a Hold Harmless approach.
In the awful but possible scenario that we are hit with a second wave of this pandemic during the Fall quarter, I hope the board engages in a more robust discussion amongst its members, and the District solicits feedback in a more clear, accurate way from the parent and student population.


20 people like this
Posted by Tricia
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 17, 2020 at 11:42 pm

The community was largely in favor of hold harmless. The Menlo-Atherton PTA sent out a short survey to parents so it could provide that as input to the Superintendent and Board. Of the over 250 respondents, 65% voted in favor of hold harmless; 24% voted credit/no credit; and 11% voted for an alternative solution (many were variants of the two options).

In addition to the petition mentioned above, Carlmont High School students (also a part of Sequoia Union HIgh School District and impacted by this decision), started their own petition asking the Board to reconsider their decision: Web Link


24 people like this
Posted by Matt
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 18, 2020 at 12:42 am

Jack, Sarver and Thomsen have got to go. They had a chance to not injure any student. Instead, they chose to harm the students who wanted credit for their hard work - students from all socio-economic backgrounds in the district. Hold harmless would have protected those with challenging circumstances in the current environment without hurting those who wanted credit for their effort thus far.

Perhaps Jack, Sarver and Thomsen should now advocate for Pass/Fail across the board when on-campus classes resume. Unfortunately, massive inequality exists in our area. We all wish that it wasn’t so, but wishing doesn’t change reality. Based on their logic, SUHSD should be Pass/Fail all the time.

We need Trustees who represent ALL the students in our district, not Trustees who are more interested in virtue signaling. The academic achievers (from all socio-economic backgrounds) in our district should be celebrated, not punished. What is the process for recall elections?

SUHSD is taking a big risk with this policy. Yes, some other local districts are doing the same. Yes, some colleges have said that Pass/Fail is ok for this term. But not all colleges have said that. Time will tell how many universities take this view. Some may not. But this doesn’t concern Jack, Sarver and Thomsen since they already have their degrees. I’m also willing to bet that their employers use grades/schools attended as a filter during the hiring process.

Hopefully all college bound SUHSD students only want to attend colleges that as forward thinking as Jack, Sarver and Thomsen. Recall them now!


11 people like this
Posted by Natalie
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2020 at 9:58 am

THANK YOU FOR VOTING FOR THE PASS/NO PASS SYSTEM!!! Superintendent Mary Streshly you are absolutely correct. The school community needs to have a “culturally, trauma-informed lens” for implementing distance learning. Just for now, this is a much better solution than judging a students learning with grades. A C letter grade can take so much time to fix in a students GPA and even more difficult with an F. I know! Growing up in a household with a verbally abusive mother, I know for a fact distance learning at home would have been extremely difficult and my grades would have dropped! If I was a high school student during these times, my mental health would have been impacted and I would have appreciated a pass/no pass system for grading. For those wanting grades during this time, how about finding a solution on how you can help disadvantaged students have equal access to a safe learning environment instead of advocating for them to have yet another detrimental factor against them. Learning on campus was the only way for me to escape and focus on school. So again please before advocating for grades continue to think about these students who have no control of their situation and have to compete against kiddos with supportive home learning environments.


22 people like this
Posted by Andrea
a resident of Atherton: West Atherton
on Apr 18, 2020 at 12:14 pm

Response to Natalie's comment:

Natalie, firstly, I'm sincerely, and deeply sorry you had to grow up in a verbally abusive home. My heart, and years of volunteer effort, goes out to our community's children who are growing up in extremely difficult and inequitable situations.

I completely agree with your comments regarding the difficulty of distance learning, particularly in disadvantaged homes, and the need to help our disadvantaged students. Likewise, I agree with Superintendent Streshly's remark, and your support of it, that the "school community needs to have a 'culturally, trauma-informed lens'".

However, it's the conclusion that you, and three of our board members came to, that is perplexing.

It's precisely because many of our students are struggling even more now due to the pandemic and switch to distance learning that the "hold harmless" approach should have been implemented.

The "hold harmless" approach is NOT at all "status quo" grading. The "hold harmless" method would have prevented hundreds of students from failing/receiving no credit. Instead, "hold harmless" would have provided struggling students with the grade they had prior to the switch to distance learning.

With the credit/no credit approach that has been chosen, all these children who can't distance learn will now receive no credit. This is in no way equitable and should be reconsidered.


16 people like this
Posted by bemused
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2020 at 3:25 pm

It seems like many people are ignoring the fact that a significant number of faculty believe that distance learning, while the best they can provide in this current situation, cannot provide the full academic curriculum that would have been covered on campus. For example, from the email sent to parents by SUHSD, here are some of the issues:

- Not all learning objectives for the course can be addressed, or to the extent and depth intended.

- Certain essential knowledge and skills are challenging to assess in a remote learning environment.

- It is difficult for staff to grade subjectively when they are new to at-home instruction. We are asking teachers to instruct in a way in which they never have had to before and there is a learning curve for all of us.

If a student achieves an 'A' in a course, the understanding that the teacher has both been able to deliver the course content and skills, and reasonably been able to ascertain that the student has mastered them. Given that many faculty are saying it is not possible to either fully deliver content or evaluate students with the current distance implementation, I think it would be clear that in a number of courses, an 'A' would no longer be achievable. Perhaps the highest achievable grade this semester for such a course would have to be a 'B' - for example, consider courses that had a significant lab component. I feel like parents and students are so pressured by GPA goals that they are not taking into consideration what a grade is supposed to represent. In this way, I think C/NC is a much more accurate reflection of the situation we are in . Credit indicates the student fulfilled possibly diminished requirements, but to an extent that they should at least not have to retake the course. And maybe they excelled and exceeded course content/skills mastery. Yes, hard not to get recognized for that.

There really is not a 'fair' solution here, as much as people want to find one. Some students may be experiencing this type of vagary of life for the first time. They thought as long as they worked hard, they would be rewarded. Well, it's simply a fact of life that does not always happen. Others are already well-acquainted with these sorts of unexpected obstacles to reaching their goals, and probably will take it in stride better. We should try to support all of our students to understand that this is a very challenging time, and to try to keep the big picture in mind. There are no guarantees in life and there are many paths to achieve, and sometimes even redefine, one's goals.


21 people like this
Posted by Natalie
a resident of another community
on Apr 18, 2020 at 5:06 pm

Andrea thank you so much for the clarification. I had misunderstood the hold harmless approach. I didn’t realize that the grades received after March 21st would not harm the grade prior if a student’s performance is affected or dropping after March 21st. In that cause I retract my statement about the pass/no pass being a better option. Again thanks for clarifying.


20 people like this
Posted by Farm Child
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 18, 2020 at 5:35 pm

I grew up in a farming community in California with a very diverse population and where the educational system was heavily weighted toward students who did not plan to attend four-year colleges. Lots of vocational training courses, no AP courses (literally none) at the public high schools. Kids ended up going to Stanford, Harvard, UCs, etc. every year. I was not at the top of my class from a GPA perspective, and was admitted to Stanford.

The top colleges have always said that GPA is only one data point that goes into the holistic picture of a student’s abilities, along with test scores, essays, experiences and recommendations, that together reflect the student’s degree of intellectual curiosity, community involvement, ethics, creativity, discipline, drive, and decency. I agree and think it’s awfully shallow to think otherwise. I find it hard to believe that the absence of one of eight semesters’ worth of grades would materially change what that picture looks like for purposes of college admissions, or overall in the trajectory of a student’s development as a person. Numbers are easy because they feel like objective data, but these GPA numbers are really not. I would love it if we could collectively reduce the level of anxiety around them and focus on developing the traits that the grades are designed to (but don’t fully) reflect. Compassion for all of those in our community is needed in these crazy times.


7 people like this
Posted by NoName
a resident of Portola Valley: Central Portola Valley
on Apr 20, 2020 at 2:12 pm

Rumor has it that, behind the scenes, there were some complicated issues with the teachers' union about a "hold harmless" approach. The district has the legal ability to define the grading system (A-F or P/NP), but they do not have the ability to direct teachers what grades to give in an A-F system, and hold harmless would have had to do that.

That's all I know. I'm sure it's more complicated (and I'm sure if I knew more details, I would despise union bullsh*t more than I do).

Sorry to be wimpy anonymous.


5 people like this
Posted by Teacher
a resident of Menlo Park: Allied Arts/Stanford Park
on Apr 20, 2020 at 2:40 pm

NoName is very correct. The district has the legal ability to define the grading system (A-F or P/NP), but it does not have the legal ability to tell teachers how to grade, in an A-F or any other system.

This is the scenario for the "hold harmless system': the school board opts for the A-F system and asks the teachers to hold the students harmless. Teachers do whatever they want because the school board cannot tell them how to grade the students.

See the problem? The "hold harmless" system cannot be legally enforced.

So the choice in front of the school board was: A-F versus Pass/No Pass. The "hold harmless" option was never a viable option.


17 people like this
Posted by Concerned Parent
a resident of another community
on Apr 20, 2020 at 4:42 pm

Comment to teacher.

I don't think you're correct in saying the hold harmless option could not be legally enforced. Los Angeles, San Diego and many districts across the country have gone this way.

Pass/ fail takes away from our highest achieving kids and does nothing for our most disadvantaged students who are suffering. This was a terrible decision by the SUHSD board and a knee jerk reaction by the superintendent to what Harvard, Stanford and the Palo Alto district implemented. Pass/ fail may be great for college students but it's not great for ALL students in a highly diverse district. Decisions should not be made because it's what the teacher's union wants, it's the easiest thing for teachers or what sounds politically correct. Decisions should be made based on what is right for kids.

A terrible decision for students.


9 people like this
Posted by Community Member
a resident of Portola Valley: Westridge
on Apr 21, 2020 at 9:20 am

Please read this editorial by a Carlmont senior: so impressed with our teens!

Web Link


7 people like this
Posted by Stanford prof
a resident of Menlo Park: other
on Apr 21, 2020 at 1:16 pm

It's great to see the teens standing up to protect the most vulnerable members of the population. The adults should take notice. With that principle in mind pass/fail was a no brainer. Congratulations to the district leadership for doing the right thing, and expressing the reasons why so thoughtfully.


5 people like this
Posted by Dawn1234
a resident of Menlo Park: Belle Haven
on Apr 21, 2020 at 2:02 pm

I applaud the board's decision to choose Pass/NoPass for this semester. Hold Harmless doesn't help the kids who need the support of school to learn. What if your grade wasn't an A or a B? What about the students who are successful because of on-campus interventions? How do you bring that grade up in the midst of a nationwide emergency?

What about the brain science that would suggest that these are not optimal conditions for learning?
It is great that many students are removed enough from this trauma to be able to continue to improve their grades. The data presented at the board meeting suggested disparities in which student populations were trending higher in their grades and which were not. And these disparities should be where the conversation starts about which policy to pursue.

In addition, students mentioned knowing students who were choosing to cheat and detailed ways in which it was happening. A pandemic is not the time to "get ahead" of others. Taking the grades off the table discourages this kind of unethical behavior in search of a leg up. In addition, there are so many students in the country (competing for those same college spots) who are being provided NO school during the shutdown. Universities will be faced with a mish-mash of grading policies for this semester and will necessarily have to give benefit of the doubt for this semester.

Hold Harmless is a misleading title. It would appear to allow high grade earners to keep their high grades while not acknowledging the giant inequities that prevent some students with lower grades from making necessary progress at home during this nationwide emergency.

Pass/NoPass isn't about my child's grades, its about all of our children's mental health and equal access to opportunity. Assuming of course that our equity minded school district is now putting abundant resources into ensuring that students are able to pass and that students competing for highly selective college spots are informed about how this policy will also not harm them. I've already seen efforts to this aim in letters from the high school counselors.

Pass/NoPass can be done in a way that doesn't "harm" anybody. I don't believe the same can be said for Hold Harmless.


11 people like this
Posted by Matt J
a resident of Menlo Park: The Willows
on Apr 22, 2020 at 12:51 am

Hi Stanford prof - just a small correction. It’s not Pass / Fail, it’s Pass / No Pass. No Pass does not equal Fail I guess?

I was also unaware that Stanford no longer requires high school transcripts with grades / GPA info as part of the application process. Maybe SUHSD should adopt Pass / No Pass as standard policy once this crisis is over. Three board members clearly think grades are the enemy of true learning.


Like this comment
Posted by Another parent
a resident of Atherton: Lindenwood
on Apr 27, 2020 at 12:44 pm

To Parent:

"Assistant Superintendent Bonnie Hansen stated that over 1,000 students have not engaged in distance learning and are at risk of dropping below passing."

She never said, "They are failing" nor she stated that they were going to pass with their third-quarter grades.

So your conclusion that the P/NP decision is causing students to fail is wildly inaccurate.

All the schools are working in reaching these students to make sure they do not fail or they can start credit recovery sooner than later.


2 people like this
Posted by M-A Parent
a resident of Menlo Park: Central Menlo Park
on Apr 27, 2020 at 1:02 pm

I have a junior at M-A who would have benefited from the so-called "hold harmless" solution and I do support the Pass/No Pass system.

Why? Sure, "hold harmless" would have given my child, and all the very privileged children like mine, the option to improve their grades, but the same opportunity is not available to all the students from socioeconomically disadvantaged families. It would look like it on paper, but we all know the reality of it.

So, if they both have a B in the third-quarter, my child would have the opportunity to earn an A, while his less fortunate classmates would be stuck with the B: how is this equitable?

Just get over the grades for this semester: if P/NP is good for Harvard admission, it should be good for you too:

Web Link


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