Up and down the Midpeninsula, while some students, parents and teachers breathed a sigh of relief that their schools would not be giving letter grades during the unprecedented closures, others rallied in opposition.
Disagreement over grading practices during the coronavirus pandemic has sparked community petitions, split school board votes and raised concerns about unhealthy attachments to grade point averages and college admissions.
Most, though not all, local school districts have moved to a credit/no credit grading system for the rest of this school year. Doing so, school leaders have said, will prevent students with fewer resources from being disadvantaged and reduce stress among both students and teachers as they navigate a rapid, bumpy transition to online learning.
Many local private schools, meanwhile, are retaining letter grades but with flexibility, such as allowing students to choose to take any class pass/fail or canceling final exams.
Santa Clara County Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan has recommended that all county schools move as soon as possible to a credit/no-credit model, which neither raises nor lowers grade-point averages. The California Department of Education hasn't taken an official position on grading but said that local districts "should weigh their policies with the lens of equity and with the primary goal of, first, doing no harm to students."
"It is important to remember that our shared overarching goals are to keep students engaged, focus on the essential skills that will allow them to be successful, and to maintain social connections with other students and teachers to provide stability and decrease social isolation during the school closures," Dewan wrote in her April 6 recommendation. "Educators can focus on ways to provide feedback to learners in lieu of assigning a letter grade for this school year."
Some parents, students and local school board members remain concerned that this grading system takes away students' opportunity to show academic progress and will hurt high school juniors' chances at college admissions, despite public assurances from major colleges and universities.
"There is a huge correlation between academic achievement and learning," Allen Weiner, the president of the Sequoia Union High School District school board, said on April 15 after casting one of two dissenting votes as the board majority approved credit/no credit system. "Kids who get better grades have learned, and we should honor that."
The Mountain View Los Altos High School District board voted 4-1 on April 6 in favor of switching to a credit/no credit system. Teachers there also supported the move.
"The power of equity that a physical classroom provides is impossible to replicate through distance learning. In effect, assigning letter grades to our students is equal to assessing their access to technology and Wi-Fi, their housing security and ableism," teachers union president David Campbell and past president Michelle Bissonnette wrote in an April 18 Mountain View Voice op-ed.
In a message to families this week, Mountain View High School said that students' credit/no credit grades will be informed in part by their "engagement" in distance learning, which requires students to submit 75% of all assignments and actively participate with each teacher at least once a week through a live class, online office hours or emailed questions. A student will be marked as "not engaged" if they don't meet both of those expectations, and parents will be notified by email, the school said.
In Sequoia Union, as well as Palo Alto Unified, hundreds of community members have advocated for a "hold harmless" grading model under which students could improve their grades but wouldn't be penalized for falling behind. A Mountain View Los Altos High School District board member also pushed for a hybrid system.
"Differences in teachers' effectiveness have existed long before (distance learning) and have created inequities in grading," Trustee Phil Faillace wrote in an April 11 op-ed in the Mountain View Voice. "We did not stop issuing grades then while we worked to raise all teachers to the level of the best, and we should not do so now."
Palo Alto Unified was the first local school district to drop letter grades in late March. Superintendent Don Austin has defended his decision — which he made with the support of the school board and teachers union — as the equitable and responsible choice. The district, like many others, has provided Chromebooks and laptops to thousands of students who didn't have sufficient technology at home to access distance learning.
Despite a parent-led effort to get the school board to reconsider credit/no credit and take its own vote on the issue, Palo Alto board members reiterated their support for the grading system at a Tuesday meeting.
"This is a really stressful time for everyone, whether you have food on the table or not, whether you have a job or not," Board Member Jennifer DiBrienza said. "We have to take some of the variables off the table."
In the K-8 Menlo Park City School District, meanwhile, middle school teachers can give students letter grades or, if there is not enough evidence of work during this time, an IE, or "insufficient evidence."
"This option allows for teachers to recognize that individual students may not have adequate support systems in place to demonstrate evidence of learning course content ... and/or that scores below 70% are not representative of what students know or are able to do," states a temporary grading policy the Menlo Park City school board unanimously approved last week.
The policy also gives middle school teachers the option of continuing to grade based on students' mastery of concepts rather than factors such as meeting assignment deadlines, participation in virtual lessons and virtual attendance.
"A mastery grading scale provides greater flexibility to the teacher to ensure that students are not being penalized for factors that may be out of their control during distance learning," the temporary policy states.
The K-8 Ravenswood City School District in East Palo Alto has not yet publicly announced a grading decision; neither has East Palo Alto charter school KIPP Valiant Community Prep.
Oxford Day Academy, a small public charter high school in East Palo Alto, is giving its mostly low-income and English-language-learner students graded credit for passing grades (A-C) and no credit for failing grades. The school wanted to reward students who perform well academically while the school is closed, co-founder and CEO Mallory Dwinal said.
Concern about college prospects
A primary concern among those who oppose the credit/no credit system is its potential impact on college admissions.
Palo Alto parent Tricia Barr worried that students will be compared to applicants from districts that kept letter grades and that "it could absolutely hurt their prospects in the college admissions process," she said during the school board's virtual meeting on April 21.
However, private and public colleges and universities across the country have said that students applying from these districts will not be disadvantaged.
"Certainly, we understand students are primarily taking courses online and often with modified grading scales. Rest assured that we are sensitive to these challenges and realities," said Richard Shaw, Stanford University's dean of undergraduate admission and financial aid. "We expect coursework to be completed but will accept whatever grading scale is used by the school." (Stanford itself has moved to a credit/no credit system for the rest of this school year.)
The University of California and California State University systems have said they will accept credit/no credit for all courses and that they won't affect GPA calculations. The UCs have temporarily relaxed other admission criteria, including suspending standardized testing requirements.
The universities' public statements, however, have not assuaged some parents' anxieties.
"If grades are not looked at, then what will the colleges look at?" Palo Alto parent Mudita Jain asked the school board on April 21.
One parent said he decided to enroll his son in an independent online program for all of his Advanced Placement classes.
In an interview, Gunn High School senior Claire Cheng said she empathizes with students who have been told that it's crucial to perform well during their junior year, particularly if they need to show improvement.
"I do think it speaks to this academic culture that's ingrained in all of us," she said. "Inevitably there’s a lot of anxiety among students around the college admission process."
Austin said he was alarmed by the stress that students and parents are feeling about the temporary loss of letter grades.
"If the loss of an inability to earn a grade in class where every college has told you it's OK" causes anxiety, he said, "that's a pretty good window into why we're having some of the stress issues we are."
For students worried about future college applications, Mountain View Los Altos High School District Superintendent Nellie Meyer said it's likely that universities will want to know how they're making the most of this unprecedented time.
"We have students grocery shopping for others. We have students creating masks. We have students reflecting on their priorities, families and health," she said at the April 6 board meeting. "Those are the kind of things, also, we want to emphasize."
How local private schools are grading during the closures
Many Midpeninsula private schools, including Castilleja School and Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, Woodside Priory in Portola Valley, Menlo School in Atherton and Saint Francis High School in Mountain View, have opted to continue with letter grades or adopt hybrid models.
At Woodside Priory, school leaders received more than 100 emails about grading from parents and students in a 36-hour window, the "overwhelming majority" of which "were advocating for keeping letter grades to acknowledge the hard work of our most motivated and highly performing students," Head of Upper School Brian Schlaak wrote in a message to families last week.
Though the school's default will be letter grades, any Woodside Priory student who wants to take a class pass/fail this semester can choose to do so -- a move that acknowledges distance-learning inequities.
"We have students with consistently spotty access to broadband, students with no quiet or private place to attend class or do their school work, students whose families cannot pay rent in the 'shelter in place' scenario and are thereby intensely distracted by issues more pressing than grades, students who have lost family members to COVID-19, international students who had or are having trouble getting home," Schlaak wrote. "We have international kids who would need to attend the synchronous aspects of their instruction at 2 a.m. We have students with learning differences for whom this format of instruction is almost wholly ineffective."
Menlo School decided that middle school students will get letter grades for English, math, science, world language, history and computer science courses but creative arts and physical education will be pass/fail. High school students' grades cannot drop below the yearlong grade they earned in third quarter but they can improve — though if students "stop engaging meaningfully in their coursework," teachers can give them an "incomplete," the school wrote to families.
Students at the all-girls Castilleja School will also receive letter grades but have no final exams this semester. Head of School Nanci Kauffman said the administration wanted to provide continuity for students — and stick with a model that would be "sustainable" considering the likelihood of extended school closures.
"I think it's important to say: You can be an outstanding school without having grades," Kauffman said. "But we currently are a school that gives grades and because of that we felt we should be consistent with that."
To ensure that no students will fall through the cracks, Castilleja provided Wi-Fi hot spots to students without internet access at home as well as noise-canceling headphones for students who might live in crowded homes with no space to quietly learn. It is also using weekly advisory sessions online to check in on students' emotional well-being.
Castilleja teachers are also using alternative assessments, including using Zoom breakout sessions for students to practice speaking in a foreign language or allowing for open-book exams that test students' application of concepts rather than their recall.
Castilleja is also planning for the possibility that distance learning will need to continue intermittently through the fall, which will require transitioning from "emergency" distance learning to "pedagogically sound online learning," Kauffman said.
Find comprehensive coverage on the Midpeninsula's response to the new coronavirus by Palo Alto Online, the Mountain View Voice and the Almanac here.