‘Raising the bar’: School district representative explains new ‘standards-based’ grading policy

Nicole DeWitt, instructional support officer for San Diego Unified, explains the district's new grading policy.
Nicole DeWitt, instructional support officer for the San Diego Unified School District, explains the district’s new grading policy.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Two months ago, the San Diego Unified School District announced a change in grading policy intended to make grading practices more inclusive, citing racial and other disparities in previous policies. At the Dec. 17 La Jolla Cluster Association meeting online, Nicole DeWitt, instructional support officer for high schools from the district’s Office of Leadership & Learning, answered submitted questions about the new policy.

The “standards-based” policy is meant to “provide students multiple opportunities to demonstrate their mastery,” DeWitt said.

It also eliminates non-academic factors such as student behavior from academic grades.

In a traditional grading system, students often are given one opportunity to show their progress, such as through a test, and then the class moves on, she said. Giving students more than one opportunity benefits multiple groups of students, she 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.

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 his or her ability to turn in work on time or learn content before a test.

The new grading policy will be about showing progress toward “mastery of standards” rather than rewarding students for completing a certain quantity of work.

“This has been a work in progress for many, many years,” DeWitt said. Elementary schools have been using a
standards-based system for almost a decade, she said.

Standards-based grading “is a shift for our secondary schools” that began in 2018 when the district partnered with Marzano Research to develop proficiency scales for English-language arts and math, DeWitt said.

“From there, we began the development of what we call our guaranteed and viable curriculum,” she said.

After a school board workshop in July, a resolution was crafted for the district to “revise our grading policy to ensure that we have equitable grading practices,” DeWitt said.

The changes resulted from a lengthy district study involving input from staff, parent and student representatives, along with Marzano Research and books by experts.

“Now what we’re doing is working with our site administrators on the implementation of that grading policy over the next two years,” DeWitt said.

This school year, she said, “we’re asking our educators to focus on two critical elements: removing the non-academic factors from the academic grade and providing opportunities for revision and reassessment.”

DeWitt said implementation will vary by department “because ... each content area has its own set of standards, so aligning those standards to a standards-based grading system is going to look different depending on the content area. Our administrators have been meeting collaboratively with the departments and educators to determine the opportunities for revision and reassessment to ensure the course syllabus is removing the non-academic factors from academic grades.”

The new grading policy does not prohibit homework from being graded, DeWitt said. “Instead, it’s taking a look at the overall makeup of the grade to ensure that the grade isn’t disproportionate when it comes to homework.”

Departments and grade-level teams are working together “to make sure there is some consistency” across the groups, DeWitt said.

If a parent believes a teacher is not following the policy, the procedure is to first “try to resolve the issue at the teacher level” before going to administrators, she said.

The principals of the La Jolla Cluster of schools, composed of the five public schools in La Jolla in the San Diego Unified School District, reported last week on progress toward improving social support for students while schools are closed to in-person instruction.

Sharon Miller, president of the LJHS Parent Teacher Student Association, said many of the questions she receives from parents are about retroactive grading. The grading policy is not retroactive to the beginning of the school year because the district can’t activate a policy until the board approves it.

“People understand why it happened the way it did, but they’re sort of confused as to why the district cannot give instruction or guidance to teachers … to allow students who fell below standards to go back and rectify that,” Miller said.

DeWitt said that “because this policy was [approved] toward the end of Quarter 1, there simply was not enough time to readjust grades and realign before those final grades were due.”

At the beginning of the school year, “when we knew we would be opening up in online learning, we did encourage educators to allow opportunities for revision and reassessment, as well as accepting late work given our current circumstances,” DeWitt added.

Teachers also have the discretion to issue a report of “in progress” or “incomplete” to give students more time to show mastery, she said.

For students with individual education plans, or IEPs, “it is on the case manager to decide what opportunities [for support] will look like for those students ... and work with a general education teacher” to implement that support, DeWitt said.

Leslie Marovich, a La Jolla parent, asked if the new grading policy is “underpreparing [students] for what they will encounter in the next step” beyond high school, “where they are not going to be able to revise.”

DeWitt said “we are by no means lowering our standards because we are offering opportunities for revision and reassessment. We will still be providing rigorous curriculum and instruction; we will still be using the same standards we’ve used in the past. We are raising the bar; we are asking students to meet these standards in more than one format.” ◆