School priorities: Homework, counseling policies

In annual two-day retreat, school board, staff ponder policies to guide district

A close look at homework policies and high school counseling will be among the top priorities of the Palo Alto school district this fall.

In 12 hours of discussions over two days, Board of Education members this week hammered out a rough list of "focused goals" for 2011-12, which will be refined and voted on in September.

Much of the conversation was about fostering school climates in which students feel supported and parents think their kids are getting a fair shake.

Superintendent Kevin Skelly said he wants policies that "weave together" academic excellence and social-emotional support for students so that "when you're talking about one of those things, people don't think you're choosing."

The tentative list of goals pleased parents who have lobbied schools to explicitly address issues of academic stress -- and their possible link to a devastating cluster of teen suicides that began two years ago.

"I want to thank the board and the superintendent for ... taking steps to reduce academic stress and also for addressing counseling and connecteness," said parent Ken Dauber, a founder of the school lobbying group We Can Do Better Palo Alto.

"We don't have to balance social-emotional well-being and academic success, because our kids are most happy when they're successful at learning, and they're most successful at learning when they're happy," he said.

Dauber's group has pressed Gunn High School to scrap its traditional college-counseling system and adopt Palo Alto High School's "teacher advisor" system, which uses teachers to augment the counseling staff.

Neither Gunn nor the district has agreed to that -- but officials did promise to bring in an unbiased outsider to evaluate the two systems and "share best practices."

In the homework area, board members said they may adopt a specific "homework policy" as a nudge to drive change in practices.

"We'd have to form some sort of committee, get some PTA input and appoint some people," Skelly said.

"Pleasanton has been through this process, and I have their board-policy markup. We'll do it with the board values of transparency."

Skelly said the faculties at Paly and at JLS Middle School have already taken steps to examine homework policies.

Both Skelly and board members referred frequently to parent focus-group meetings held last month, in which randomly selected parents were invited to talk about their experiences with the schools.

Many parents raised concerns about inconsistency, in which a child's experience -- and level of preparation for the following year -- too often depended on the teacher he or she happened to have.

For high school students, differences in grading policies also were raised as a concern.

"It's not a good system if there's inconsistent grading between classes and students think, 'If I get this teacher I'm going to get hammered with no chance of an A, but if I get this other teacher it's an easy A,'" board member Dana Tom said.

Some board members worried that unduly harsh grading -- particularly in high school math and science classes -- could undermine students' confidence and possible pursuit of the subject as a career.

"I don't know if anyone steps back and says, 'Why do we give the grades we do, and what's the rational objective,'" board member Barbara Klausner said.

She wondered why, in one Advanced Placement biology program, 72 percent of students earn a 4 or 5 on the AP test but only 38 percent of them get an A in the class.

"Are we asking our students to do more than the AP test requires or is there some other purpose we're trying to achieve, because it certainly has an impact on students' social-emotional health," Klausner said.

Board President Melissa Baten Caswell worried about potential consequences beyond high school. "The danger we're creating there is that only the rocket scientists are going to be enthusiastic about studying those subjects in college and beyond," she said.

"Are we doing a disservice to a student who might be engaged and great at math but will never take another math course?"

Skelly noted some grading disparities may reflect the behavior of a student who, while competent at the subject, "never does the homework and is always tardy."

Tom cautioned against imposing "top-down directives" regarding homework and grades, saying, "You won't get much compliance."

Skelly and board members advocated more "professional development" opportunities for teachers as a way for them to collaborate and potentially foster greater consistency in approach.

Board Vice-President Camille Townsend cautioned that a goal mentioning "consistency" could be misinterpreted and have the effect of "tamping down" particularly creative teachers.

"As long as we have a base of consistency, I want to capture the individuality and excitement of each teacher," Townsend said, mentioning in particular the historic re-enactments created for years by former Paly social studies teacher Mike McGovern.

Board members said new structural policies, including the school calendar, start time and block schedules, have great effect on school climate.

"If we look at this through school culture, we want to make sure we have a culture we designed rather than a culture that happens to us," Caswell said.

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Posted by Marielena G-M
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 1, 2011 at 11:26 am

Finnaly, the hard work and time that many parents and groups (Saint Maks/PIA, We Can Do Better Palo ALto, and especially parents who lost their children)have dedicated to this difficult issues is paying off. We are making progress little, by little. I hope we do not stop here. We should continue to support our kids, high achiever, low achievers, rich poor, girls, boys, Palo Alto Residents, Tinsley Transfer Students, etc. All students shall be supported academically, socially and emotionally if we want them to succeed. They are the future of this country and this world. We can't afford to lose one more. Thanks to all contributors who made it happen.

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Posted by Marie
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jul 1, 2011 at 1:13 pm

A 4 or 5 on an AP exam has little to do with the final grade in the semester. Brilliance does not imply discipline. By discipline I mean completing homework on time, being to class on time and an on a regular basis.

The system of block schedule and teacher counselors at Paly does not fit the Gunn community. The block schedule doesn't work for most Pay students, in particular the special needs students. The TA system has its flaws as well and leaves many students behind.

Gunn has a later start time, Small Campus, Focus, Titan 101, and other programs in place to help students. Gunn tries to care and tries even harder to present a picture of caring. But don't look below the surface. Same old ugly roots of bigotry and intolerance are apparent. More good work to be done.x

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Posted by Happy at Paly
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 1, 2011 at 9:49 pm

I am really impressed with the administration and staff at Paly. They really do care about the students.

However, I completely agree with Dana Tom regarding the fact that some teachers are too difficult and some are too easy (and the students know the names of the teachers). High GPAs are so important so this needs to be stabilized. My child took an English class in the same lane as another child, yet had a different teacher, so my child earned a "B" while the other child earned the easy "A". Although my child learned more, a "B" still drags down the GPA and colleges don't know that my child's teacher was more difficult.

Two teachers who were extremely difficult will not be returning to the Spanish department this fall. Don't know if it's Winston being productive, but it's coincidental because there were years of complaints about these teachers.

Regarding the homework load, my child does better with homework than on tests. So there is some advantage to having a lot of homework. In most classes, my child earns 90-100% on homework assignments, yet earns 70-80s on tests. This allows the final grade to be either "A"s or "B"s. So the teachers are being reasonable in their grading scales. It also forces the students to learn along the way, rather than assuming they are reading along the way (and some aren't) and then handing out a test. In my day, most class grades were dependent upon test grades, which was a nightmare for bad test-takers.

Infinite Campus allows parents/students to view their grades and attendance record. I thought this would be a disaster for students with Tiger parents and was disappointed when it was adopted. However, it has been a benefit. My child can see if a teacher has missed an assignment which was turned in or can view the grade prior to taking the final exam. Unfortunately, not all teachers use the system, but most do, and it is extremely helpful to my student.

We love the new block schedule at Paly. Lighter backpacks, less stress because of the alternate days of classes.

I am relieved that final exams will be prior to Winter Break and we enjoy all the days off within the academic year for additional de-stressing. My child never studied during Winter Break, however, was still stressed-out, knowing that returning to school would lead to the final exams. Now, Winter Break will be a true break for relaxing.

Principal Phil Winston has been a fantastic addition to our school.

Like this comment
Posted by paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 2, 2011 at 4:43 pm

While I would hate to stifle any creativity on the part of teachers, if they are teaching the same class, they should teach and test on the same material as EVERY other teacher of the same class in the District. Not only does the grading vary from teacher to teacher, the subject matter varies just as much. And our 2 high schools don't even have all the same core classes.

I'd like to see a return to a true "department head" instead of "instructional supervisors" that basically rotate among the teachers. The Department head could make sure that every Econ class (just as an example) covers the same materials, tests on the same material, and is graded with the same degree of difficulty. The teachers should be free to cover the material in whatever manner works for them and their students.

Homework should be meaningful, relevant and NECESSARY to learn the material, not busy work or art projects (except in art classes!)

AP classes - my son and his cousin took the same AP class, different school districts. The cousin's class was way easier, he got an A in the class and a 3 on his AP test. My son got a B and a 5. (Did all the homework, participated in class, was on time, etc.) Then there are the teachers (not only AP) who basically start the class off on the first day by telling the kids that no one will get an A. Not a great way to start.

In our experience, the new Paly bell schedule was terrific, even for a special needs kid. The TA system is so-so, totally dependent on the TA, very inconsistent.

Like this comment
Posted by who do we teach?
a resident of Charleston Gardens
on Jul 3, 2011 at 11:09 am

I disagree with this:

"they should teach and test on the same material as EVERY other teacher of the same class in the District. "

We teach *students*. We don't sort them on an assembly line, as we would nectarines.

Each class has different students, with different backgrounds, abilities, proclivities, interests, home environments, responsibilities and enrichment opportunities.

A teacher is needed precisely because of this. Otherwise, textbooks and recorded lectures, along with assignments assembly line grading could be done much better via internet.

Processing in an assembly line fashion is not what we need teachers for.

It may be that our teachers have devolved to the point where they are not adding this value (of customizing their work to their students). They may indeed be repeating routine presentations and testing with predetermined questions.

That's a different problem, and it should be addressed by our expensive educational administration.

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 3, 2011 at 5:00 pm

Who do we teach - You don't think that teachers should they should teach and test on the same material as every other teacher of the same class in the District? You think that a 9th grade biology teacher can cover whatever he/she wants as long it falls under biology? That one English teacher teaches writing and another does not? That one Econ teacher covers the theories of macroeconomics and another covers balancing a checkbook, investing and making a budget?

Each student and teacher is unique. A teacher should be free to cover the material in a manner that works the best for them and their class. But the actual information that the students are expected to learn and know at the end of the class should be consistent. It is a particular problem when one class builds on another - imagine if Spanish 1 didn't teach reading and writing Spanish, but covered Spanish literature instead because the students and teacher were interested in that instead. What happens when they get to Spanish 2?

Teacher should absolutely add value - they should also cover the District curriculum. The should test on what they have taught (believe or not, many teachers test on topics they have not gotten to in class or are not really interested in covering).

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Posted by Former Paly Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 4, 2011 at 2:06 pm

For a thought-provoking discussion of homework policies, I recommend reading Alfie Kohn's book, The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing.
The book jacket provides a good summary of what the reader will find:
"We're all familiar with the downside of homework: frustration, exhaustion, and nagging. But most of us assume that it's all worth it because homework promotes higher achievement, "reinforces" learning and teaches study skills and responsibility. Unfortunately, none of these assumptions actually passes the test of research, logic, or experience.
"The available evidence indicates, for example, that homework provides absolutely no academic benefits for younger students. It also raises serious questions about whether homework is necessary for older students, and it challenges the belief that homework promotes independence and good work habits.
"If homework really offers all pain and no gain, then why do we force children to come home from school and work what amounts to a second shift? Kohn's incisive analysis reveals how a set of misconceptions about learning, a mistrust of children, and a misguided focus on competitiveness have left our kids with less free time and our families with more conflict. Pointing to stories of parents who have fought back--and schools that have proved educational excellence is possible without homework--Kohn demonstrates how we can rethink what happens during and after school in order to rescue our families and our children's love of learning."

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Posted by Paly Mom
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 4, 2011 at 9:24 pm

I agree with Paly Parent that there is not near enough consistency. However, forcing the teachers to teach the exact same material in the same amount of time,lock-step, especially in classes like English and social studies, and using the same activities and tests would be going too far. (This has been done in some elementary schools in districts like Oakland, and it hasn't been very successful, from what I've heard.) However, at Paly there is the need for much more communication and agreement within each department about what is to be covered, how much writing is to be assigned and what the standards are for grading. It's definitely true that some students work much harder in some classes for Bs, knowing that they have friends receiving As who are doing half the amount of work and learning less in the same course with a different teacher. Some English teachers assign little writing; others assign much more. If students happen to have teachers who don't work on writing for the first 3 years, they may get a senior English teacher who is shocked that they've never learned to write well. This wouldn't happen if the expectations and standards for every English class were clear and administrators made sure they were followed, but it does unfortunately. An additional problem is that math teachers don't always cover the same material but often use the same tests (in the name of consistency, I assume).
As far as the use of TAs instead of counselors, it depends a lot on who your son/daughter happens to be assigned to. It can create a problem if it's a teacher that they've had and don't especially like. Certain TAs are not even-handed and focus all their attention on the students who are most likely to get into Brown or Harvard. Others are excellent and care about all students getting into the college that best matches their academic levels and interests. Also, if your child doesn't like the TA but is expecting to take a class that he/she frequently teaches, it's hard to know whether requesting a switch of TA is a good idea. All in all, I prefer the use of guidance counselors. The problem, of course, is that in California the counselors are being cut, along with everyone else.

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Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jul 5, 2011 at 11:32 am

I sincerely hope that the Gunn counseling system does not switch to the TA system. Our students have individual meetings with their counselors upon request. The counselors are credentialed, professional people with a vast storehouse of knowledge of the staff and coursework at Gunn, how we compare to other schools and the world of colleges and universities. This caring staff possesses a deep understanding of child development and psychology. School board and district administration: Please do not confuse our counseling system and counselors with problems which have other causes. Our counselors have no power over grade deflation. They have no power over parents misunderstanding their children. They have no power over capricious college admissions officers. They have no power over global competition.

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Posted by Gunn parent
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jul 5, 2011 at 11:53 am

I did not mean to imply that parents who have tragically lost their children to suicide did not understand them.
Rather I meant that sometimes parents force their children into activities and classes that the children have no aptitude for or no interest in. If the counselors generally advise students to follow their own instincts, it is possible for families to transfer their misunderstandings on to the school counselors instead of dealing with the situation at home.

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Posted by combine
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 5, 2011 at 6:24 pm

Can we combine both within a school£¿

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Posted by speak up
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 5, 2011 at 8:04 pm

Gunn Parents: I implore you to speak up!! Please don't let a few outspoken parents represent you! Be informed and speak up! I hate to have this small group of parents speak for our entire community!

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Posted by Craig
a resident of Gunn High School
on Jul 5, 2011 at 10:23 pm

There is no problem with self esteem at Gunn. Being merely brilliant makes you average. If you are just smart, forget about feeling successful.

Roughly 20% of the senior class were National Merit Finalists or Commended Scholars, compared to 2% of the total population. The average 2010 SAT score 1951 at Paly and 1947 at Gunn. Assuming 650 in each subject, that's the 89th percentile in reading, 85th percentile in math and 90th in writing. More than 50% of Palo Alto students are in the top 15% nationally.

Barbara Klausner mentioned Biology. How about AP Calculus BC? The most advanced math class offered to high school students. Of over 100 students taking the AP exam last year, all but a few got the highest score of 5. Compare this to nationally where around 50% get 5s (97% in the top 50%). What happened to all the 4s and 3s? They were driven out by the ridiculously inflated difficulty imposed on students. Did the students whose score was high enough (actually you only need a 4) to test out of calculus at MIT and Stanford get an A? No. I'm guessing around 1/2 got Bs (I'd love to see the actual numbers). The math department likes Bs so they make the class and grading hard enough to fulfill their quota. When the "B" students drop out, they make it harder still so half of the remaining get "B"s. Yes, last year's A student is today's B student.

We look at the outstanding college admissions, pat ourselves on the back and say we must be doing a great job. What's not measured is how many students were blocked from the schools they earned by grade deflation. Furthermore, how many students were discouraged and took less challenging classes because they couldn't afford the B or C (but got it anyway because those classes were no better).

Did the 20% National Merit scholars all get into the top schools in the country? Did the AP Calc BC 5s all get into Caltech, MIT and Berkeley? No, they didn't.

We prepared them for the college they didn't get into.

Math and science teachers have proven themselves incapable of designing and implementing a rational grading system.

It's time for teachers, parents, students and the administration to work together to revamp the grading system.

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Posted by compare
a resident of Palo Verde
on Jul 5, 2011 at 10:54 pm

The root of this deadly competition stems from this reporting system which is required by Universities£¬which is putting our school kids against each other directly within a school

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Posted by What I've heard
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 6, 2011 at 3:08 pm


Great points but I'm not sure giving more As to the hard working students who are taking the most challenging classes will improve their chances of getting into top colleges. Colleges will not give acceptances to every qualified student at the same school because they are after diversity, in this case geographic diversity.

I've heard from several college counselors that going to PAUSD high school makes it HARDER to get into a top college because of how difficult it is to stand out in a sea of exceptionally qualified students. Given that, so people must not be flocking to our schools to get into top colleges as many who post on this forum purport. It just doesn't work that way any more around here.

What I find bothersome as a parent is that it is very, very difficult for students in some classes to review their graded tests and labs. Some in the same classroom are graded by different student TAs leading to grading inconsistency. That seems wrong. It also makes it very difficult for students to learn from their mistakes or even check to see if an error was made in the grading that affects their final grades. The board should make it a policy that students can take home all of their graded work if they feel it will assist them in their studies.

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Posted by Herman
a resident of another community
on Jul 7, 2011 at 9:10 am

Re Craig, I find that the huge emphasis on every grade being assigned, and on the absolute pressure to be accepted at the Ivies, Stanford, or MIT is misplaced. As a 70's grad of Gunn (with a few B's)and college counselor, young bright kids, even if just "smart" will find literally hundreds of great Schools, small and large, liberal arts or directed across the country. I attended a family reunion on the East Coast last week, with grads from Harvard (4), Oberlin, Colorado College (2), New Hampshire, Maine, Berkeley, Michigan, Cornell, Columbia, Chico State, Rutgers, St. Lawrence, Dartmouth (2),Goucher, MIT (3), Oregon, and others. Although not scientific, there was NO association between the "reputation" of the School attended (including Harvard) and their apparent success in life and general happiness. My experience working with kids and parents is often the pressure is simply because parents want to brag about their kids Schools, or live vicariously through their kids education. Among the most successful was a clothes designer from New York City who chose to not attend college.

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Posted by paly parent
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 7, 2011 at 10:31 am

First of all, we just should admit that for many/most people, high school in Palo Alto is not about learning, it is about grades and getting into a prestigious college.

"What I've heard" - I agree that it is very challenging as a student or parent to have little idea of what your grades are. I don't understand why the use of our online grading system is not required in the teacher's contracts. Even if it is not perfect, it's tough as a student to be going into your final and having no idea if you have an A or B in a class. Or if your teacher has given you credit for all your assignments (that seems to happen more than you would think). Not to mention that simply returning assignments in a timely manner would help a lot.

That said, I totally agree that long term happiness has little to do with where you attend (or don't attend) college, although I'm amazed at how many adults in Palo Alto are STILL really into where other adults went to college...

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Posted by Parent
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jul 7, 2011 at 12:05 pm

@paly parent: most students know exactly their grade in the class before going into the final because they can review every detail on Infinate Campus online. For the teachers who do not use it, the student can simply talk with the teacher (the old-fashioned way). They 65 minutes each week in school to go speak with any teacher they choose during Tutorial.

@Herman: times have changed since the 70's - the stakes are higher now. Also, you named mostly reputable colleges besides two of them.

Agree with Craig. PAUSD needs to loosen the belt a bit and engage grade inflation. I was disappointed this year to see where Paly students were going to college. We don't have high numbers in high places, as I would think we would: Web Link

UC Berkeley 23
Davis 12
Irvine 1
Stanford 6
Princeton 4
Harvard 2

Mission San Jose in Fremont 2010 data: Web Link MSJ has a majority of Asian students, reflecting the bias towards UC schools.

UC Berkeley 69
Davis 43
Irvine 21
Stanford 5
USC 19
Princeton 2
Harvard 1

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Posted by Sue
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 7, 2011 at 12:27 pm

Deflated grading (in not only honor/AP courses but also non-honor courses) and not allowing students to take honor/AP courses in a manageable way hurt Palo Alto student's chance to get into good colleges.
In particular for UCs, the most important factor is UC weighted GPA. Not allowing students to take APs in sophomore year forces students to cram heavy duty courses in junior year (in order to be counted for UC weighted GPA), a year when the students are stressly booked with standardized tests and extra-curricular activities.

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Posted by Paly alum 09
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 31, 2011 at 4:44 pm

"Then there are the teachers (not only AP) who basically start the class off on the first day by telling the kids that no one will get an A. Not a great way to start."

I don't think this is true. I think a lot of students have perceptions going into, say, APUSH, that nobody gets an A-- but really, a good handful of my peers who focused on the class and worked very hard got A's. That said, the APUSH teacher never was so discouraging as to say no one was able to get an A.

If it helps to picture what kind of Paly student I was- I got into UC San Diego (did not attend, though)- and so was a good student who took honors lane classes, but was not a top level student in terms of grades.


As a college student, I've seen that the college I chose (although it was not my top choice, and was seen by many Palo Alto parents and students as not a "highly ranked" college) has many valedictorians and straight A students who also got into the likes of UCLA, Berkeley, etc. but chose my college instead, and that many of my peers have graduated to go on to great grad schools including Harvard and Wash U med, etc. So although I may have not gotten straight A's at Paly, I was accepted to a college that had top students from other high schools. I believe, at least at my small college, that the prestige of Paly was somewhat taken into account, as were my heavy courseload and decent SAT & AP scores. I, thus, ended up at a school with peers that are at my level and that I'm proud to be studying with, even if I did not "rank" highly at Paly.

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Posted by Paly alum 09
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Jul 31, 2011 at 4:52 pm

further, inconsistencies in grading vary because people/teacher's standards/beliefs vary. some teachers believe that an A is "sacred" and should only be open to a few highly motivated, hard working students, while other teachers believe if you've reached a certain benchmark, you should get an A.

yes, there may be some people who go through school getting great grades because they had easier teachers. but ultimately, the kids who really work hard and are very smart will get the best grades, regardless of how hard a grader their teachers are. i was an A/B student who occasionally struggled with trying to scrape by with a B- instead of a C.. and yes, i had to work this hard to get a B- because i had more difficult teachers who believed A's on tests were for those who could do above and beyond what the hw questions/textbook expected of us. but were there some kids who worked harder than me, were brilliant at math/history/etc who did fine? yes! and they deserve their A's in those weed-out BC calc classes, etc.!

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Posted by palo alto mom
a resident of Duveneck/St. Francis
on Jul 31, 2011 at 8:30 pm

Paly Alum -

My son (Paly grad) had 3 teachers that on the first day of class (2 english, 1 history) told the class that no one would get an "A". There should be much more consistency in grading at our schools. A's should not be easy, but they should not be impossible either. And if you get a 4 or a 5 on an AP test, you should get an A in the class (as opposed to most of the country where you get an A in an AP class and only a 2-3 on the AP test).

PAUSD teachers- some of them - need to remember they are not Stanford professors, they are high school teachers and should teach and grade accordingly.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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