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San Diego Unified changes school grading practices with aim to be more equitable and less punitive

San Diego Unified School District middle-school students do classwork in 2019.
(File)

Academic grades will be based on how well a student knows a subject, not on factors related to behavior.

The San Diego Unified School District is eliminating non-academic factors such as student behavior from academic grades following the school board’s unanimous vote Oct. 13 to overhaul the district’s grading practices.

The changes are partly intended to address racial and other disparities in current grading practices, officials said.

District data have shown that Black, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islander high school students are significantly more likely to be given D and F grades.

Black students received D’s or F’s 20 percent of the time and Hispanic students received them 23 percent of the time, compared with 7 percent for White students and 6 percent for Asian students, according to data from the first semester of last school year. The districtwide average for D and F grades was 16 percent.

Students with disabilities and English-learners were given D’s and F’s 25 percent and 30 percent of the time, respectively.

Experts, teachers and students have said that including non-academic factors in grades and not giving students second chances to learn or make progress can contribute to unfair disparities in grades.

For example, a student may have struggles related to home or other responsibilities that affect their ability to turn in work on time or learn content before a test. Common grading practices such as averaging a student’s grade over time can disadvantage students who started the year behind grade level and can discredit the progress a student has made, experts have said.

According to San Diego Unified’s new grading policy, which will be implemented over this year and next, academic grades will only be about showing progress toward “mastery of standards,” rather than rewarding students for completing a certain quantity of work.

That approach is called “standards-based grading,” which has been the norm for elementary grades in San Diego Unified for years, said Kisha Borden, president of the teachers union. The changes approved Oct. 13 will primarily impact middle and high school students.

Students will no longer be docked in their academic grades for turning work in late or other factors related to work habits. Those aspects of student behavior will be judged in a separate citizenship grade.

Rather than getting one chance to get a good grade, students will be given additional chances to revise their work and show improvement.

“The idea that you can make a mistake and go back and fix it is powerful and allows kids to learn and grow in a more reparative and less punitive environment,” Amy Wood, a parent at Lewis Middle and Franklin Elementary, said during the grading presentation at the school board meeting.

Under the new grading policy, when a student is caught cheating, the school must give the student a chance to reflect on what he or she did, repair trust and receive counseling or other help.

Instructional support officer Nicole DeWitt said the district also is exploring offering “credit/no credit” grades to students with extenuating circumstances.

For years, some teachers and experts have pointed to issues with traditional grading practices.

Grading often differs widely from one teacher to another, and poor grades often are cemented into a student’s record without additional chances to revise and show progress or improvement, leaving a negative mark that hurts students’ chances to get into a good college or get other opportunities.

“Our current grading system is working very well for what it was intended to do, and what it was intended to do was to classify students and to put them into categories and basically push them in a certain direction,” school board President John Lee Evans said.

“We’ve been for too long on this idea where you had a chance, you didn’t succeed, so therefore we’re gonna categorize you as a failure, and your option is to start all over.”

Before the school board approved the new grading policy, student trustee Zachary Patterson pointed out some parts of the policy that he said contradicted the district’s intention to be restorative and not punitive.

For example, he said, the policy includes a provision that says students will be punished if they know of another student who is cheating but don’t report it.

DeWitt said that part of the policy was meant to encourage an “If you see something, say something” culture among students when it comes to cheating.

But Zachary and some board members suggested it would create a punitive culture, counter to the restorative approach the district said it was embracing.

“We don’t say, ‘If you see something, say something or you’re in trouble,’” said board Vice President Richard Barrera.

Zachary, a high school junior, also took issue with another part of the policy that said a student’s citizenship grade would be affected if the student or his or her parent asks for a grade change for reasons other than clerical error.

“It’s very ambiguous and allows teachers a lot of flexibility, when our focus as a district is supposed to be on self-advocacy,” Zachary said. “It makes me, as a student, nervous to go to my teacher to discuss my grade.”

District staff said it would take back those parts of the proposal for potential revision.

State law protects teachers’ authority and autonomy in deciding students’ grades.

DeWitt said the district’s new policy is meant to prohibit students from asking for grade changes for unsubstantiated reasons.

Zachary said schools should be implementing restorative grading practices — such as offering retakes of tests — sooner rather than later because the coronavirus pandemic has already taken a toll on students’ academics. He said most of his classes currently don’t offer a retake option.

“We’re having students that are really struggling to keep up right now, and we’re not creating a conducive learning environment in a lot of our schools,” Zachary said.

“If this doesn’t change within the next three weeks, we’re gonna have a lot of students that are walking out with grades that are not reflective of what they would usually be getting in normal school.”

Borden, the teachers union president, said it will be important for the district to properly train teachers and communicate the need for the grading changes while respecting teachers’ grading autonomy. She agreed that the changes are needed.

“I hope educators are given time to try this on or given time to really evaluate this new policy and really think about how it fits into their teaching, because this is a major shift,” Borden said.

For months, the district has been working on multiple areas of its operations, including grading, in efforts to make them more anti-racist and equitable, partly in response to social justice protests that erupted over the summer in response to George Floyd’s death.

District officials also said at the Oct. 13 board meeting that high school students are able to take any Advanced Placement course the district offers, no matter which high school they attend, through the district’s virtual school, iHigh.

Currently, AP courses vary by school, based on which teachers are credentialed to teach AP classes and whether enough students had requested the courses.

The next school board meeting on Oct. 27 will include an update on reforming school police, and on Nov. 10 there will be an update on ethnic studies. ◆