Despite Petition, No Change Planned on High School Grading Policy

(Sally Hogarty, Photographer)
Miramonte High School became a ghost town after campuses were suddenly shut down in March.

    Parents and students of the Acalanes High School Unified District (AUHSD) have been circulating a petition demanding the district give students the option of receiving traditional letter grades for the spring semester instead of the credit/no mark (NM) scores the district has chosen to provide.
    The petition asks the district to give students the option to take a letter grade for the whole semester based on their grades during the third quarter.
    The district switched to the system due to the statewide shutdown of schools because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Like all students throughout California, AUHSD students took their classes online in spring.
    Despite the petition, AUHSD’s board has no plans to change the policy or discuss it further. There is no AUHSD board meeting planned for this month.
    “Given that 92 percent of California high school students will be able to receive letter grades and Washington state has mandated it, we firmly believe that the district is putting our students at a grave disadvantage,” said Janet Tarkoff, one of the leaders of the parents group opposing AUHSD’s action.
    Not giving AUHSD students a grade option may impact their ability to get in to the college of their choice – especially sophomores and juniors. College admissions counselors make their acceptance decisions based on student performance during those two years.
    In a letter to the AUHSD board and California’s Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tony Thurmond, Tarkoff said, “I understand the difficult nature of distance learning and the struggles unique to every teacher and student in the district. For those who elect it, credit/no credit is a great relief to those pressures. But for those students who worked very hard for their third-quarter grades and are looking to improve their GPA in advance of college and scholarship applications, nullifying those grades disadvantages them and sends the message that their efforts were wasted.”
    Henry Hill, who will be going into his junior year at Miramonte High School in the fall, knows all about the downside of the credit/no credit option. Had he had the option to take a letter grade based on his third-quarter performance last semester, Hill’s grade point average would have jumped from a 3.85 to a 3.9.
    “I think it’s crazy that the school district is not offering the choice,” said the 16-year-old. He said AUHSD is in the “extreme minority” of districts not just statewide, but nationally. “Only five percent of districts nationwide are not offering the grade option” said Hill.
    “The students that did well third quarter are really upset,” said Hill. “If they didn’t, it doesn’t matter to them.”
    Although colleges have said they will not penalize students for only having credit/no credit for the spring semester, Hill said it’s obvious they will favor grades in the admissions process.
    Not having grades could also hit students in the pocketbook. The University of Oregon, as well as many other schools, have scholarships for incoming freshmen based partly on GPAs. For an out-of-state student, having a 3.85 could mean $40,000 off tuition for four years at the school while a 3.6 would reduce it $30,000 over four years. 
    AUHSD Superintendent John Nickerson said the board’s decision was “not a perfect solution,” but believed that it was “the best solution for the students. Clearly, there is a group of parents that disagrees and has been advocating for a different letter-graded approach.”
    In an e-mail explaining the policy to parents, Nickerson addressed the grading option by saying that while it was allowable it has shortcomings.
    “The third-quarter grade is only designed as a progress report, and we have determined that there are significant inconsistencies in how the teachers use this progress report and what the grade represents. We believe it would not be an accurate reflection of student achievement as a semester grade or even a representation of performance in the third quarter consistent between teachers and classes,” said Nickerson.
    “While credit/NM is inherently not precise, the integrity of the grade would stand. Allowing students to improve a third-quarter grade is also fraught with challenges and issues of inequities given the wildly different circumstances we all experience with the pandemic. While many California public school districts have not yet made decisions, it appears that the majority of districts, and certainly most all of the highest performing districts, will be implementing some form of credit/NC system for the semester.”
    Board member Chris Severson said providing accurate grades under distance learning would be nearly impossible and giving some students “As and some credit is grossly inequitable and biased against middle- to lower-end learners for a host of reasons.”
    He said the board also felt “this is a global pandemic and all universities understand the state of high school learning.” 
    Speaking on his own behalf, not the board’s, Severson said he finds it terribly ironic that he’s received “email after email from some Orinda parents highly concerned that the board’s decision to issue credit will put their student at a ‘disadvantage’ while, by nearly every measure, our Orinda students are some of the most advantaged in the U.S. and in the world.”

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