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.
"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.
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 credit/no credit system at their meeting Tuesday.
"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."
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 op-ed in the Mountain View Voice, the Weekly's sister newspaper.
In a message to families this week, Mountain View High School said that students' credit/no credit marks 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 the Sequoia Union High School District, 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.
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."
The policy also gives middle school teachers the option 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," states a temporary grading policy the Menlo Park school board unanimously approved last week.
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 is 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.
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 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."
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 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," Schlaak wrote.
At Menlo School, administrators decided that high school students' grades cannot drop below the yearlong grade they earned in third quarter but they can improve. If students "stop engaging meaningfully in their coursework," though, 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 homes that lack a quiet place in which to learn. It is also using weekly advisory sessions online to check in on students' emotional well-being.
Castilleja teachers are using alternative assessments, too, including 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.
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