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The San Dieguito Union High School District building in Encinitas. File photo
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Grading policy stirs debate, possible recalls

REGION — Growing feelings of fury, frustration and desperation are sweeping through two North County school districts.

Parents, students and even teachers in the Vista Unified and San Dieguito Union High school districts are pleading with their respective school boards and superintendents to offer hybrid grading criteria for students after schools went to distance learning models due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In early April, both districts implemented a credit/no credit (pass/fail) policy, which does not record letter grades for students. In early April, the VUSD board passed its policy, while SDUHSD Superintendent Robert Haley made the decision granted under emergency authority.

The opposition, meanwhile, is demanding an approach incorporating credit/no credit and letter grades.

As a result, the fallout rankled parents and students leading to the potential of recalling board members in VUSD. Parents in SDUHSD, meanwhile, have already served recall papers to two board of trustees, President Beth Hergesheimer and Joyce Dalessandro.

“There is a lot of misunderstandings,” VUSD parent Jana Anderson said. “This is a paradigm shift in the way we are doing everything. They made a decision very early, being proactive I think. Come to find out … 75% of the largest districts in the state are doing grades.”

Equity among students

A number of school districts in San Diego County, and the state, initially implemented the credit/no credit policy. Over the past several weeks, dozens have reversed course to allow parents and students the option of choosing between letter grades or credit/no credit.

Carlsbad, San Marcos, Sweetwater, San Diego, Los Angeles, Fresno and dozens of others have switched to allowing for the option of grades. In addition to VUSD and SDUHSD, only Oceanside and Poway have kept a credit/no credit policy.

In Vista and San Dieguito, the boards and superintendents have championed the credit option as the fairest and most equitable option for all students.

To pass the credit option, a student needs a 60% or higher, although the letter grade will not appear on a student’s transcript and it cannot be lower from March 13 when schools closed and transitioned to distance learning.

Letter grade policies, such as in Carlsbad Unified, also do not allow a grade to drop from the March 13 starting point.

Both districts have said the credit option allows disadvantaged students, especially those pre-pandemic, the best opportunity to obtain a passing “grade.” Those students come from lower-income households where parents work several jobs and may not have access to a wireless internet connection.

In Vista, 63% of students are classified as low income, while SDUDS has a population of about 10%. Districts, though, have distributed laptops and helped many lower-income families with wireless internet connections to service those students.

VUSD Trustee Cipriano Vargas said there is no best policy, only guidelines given by the California Department of Education giving school districts local control. He added some parents have been demanding the option for grading and credit/no credit.

Vargas said it creates a two-tier system where one group is able to earn grades and boost their GPA, while another group remains stagnant as it relates to GPA.

“From students who are going through the death of a loved one, to families who are in financial distress and others who are simply trying to survive in this environment,” Vargas said,” there will be student regression in academics regardless of grading policies, but I am confident that if given the resources, our staff will rise to the challenge. Specifically to our board policy, under a credit/no credit policy, a student’s GPA will not be lower under this policy.”

Anderson and attorney Seema Burke, who has kids in both districts, said the “equity” argument falls flat and assumes disadvantage students are not succeeding in school and don’t want a choice between a grade or credit.

“We said how about we take the grades they had on March 13 and give students those grades,” Burke said. “And then as long as they are continuing to get credit, which is D-level work, then they are able to show the grades through March 13. It’s a really ugly assumption made about low-income or disadvantage families that none of their kids had grades that they would want to show or are college-bound.”

VUSD Superintendent Matt Doyle referred questions to one of his community announcements outlining the policy, board action and guidance from external sources.

Silence and turmoil

Parents, teachers and students in both districts recently participated in drive-by protests at their respective school district offices calling for the hybrid option.

Parents in SDUHSD are also questioning Haley’s dedication to the district. Although he works in Encinitas, he lives in Palo Alto and commutes weekly to work, according to Dr. Kim McLachlan and Jane O’Hara, both parents of SDUHSD students.

Petitions in both districts have circulated and accumulated about 2,000 signatures requesting the letter grade option be included in the policy.

Additionally, recall papers were submitted and the women said not only will parents take it to the ballot box, but is a reminder to the board it answers to parents.

Regardless, the SDUSD board called a special meeting for May 14, to address the hybrid option. Two SDUDHS trustees, Maureen “Mo” Muir and Melisse Mossy, support the hybrid option. Muir, vice president of the SDUHSD board, stated her position in an op-ed on May 5 in The Coast News.

Mossy said she doesn’t understand the hesitancy from the board to act in the best manner and provide a variety of options to protect all students.

Trustee Kristin Gibson said until she hears more information from staff and discussion with the other board members, she is not committed to one policy.

Another issue is high schools on quarter systems such as Canyon Crest and San Dieguito academies and Sunset and Mission Vista high schools. Those schools were able to give their students letter grades, even after distance learning went into place in March.

“They got their grades adjusted,” McLachlan said. “We got a third-quarter progress report. But we never get them calculated or noted, according to Dr. Haley. All that goes away and just becomes credit or no credit for the entire semester.”

Vista parents are also looking at filing recall papers for a number of board members. Hundreds of emails and calls to those board members and superintendent have gone unanswered, which is a source of frustration, confusion and anger for many parents, Anderson and Burke said.

The VUSD board, meanwhile, has not called for a special meeting, although Vargas said the board retains the power to do so.

College admission

The University of California and California State University systems have both said they will allow for credit/no credit options in the admissions process. Still, many state schools want as many data points, such as letter grades, as possible.

While those universities will not hold a credit against a student’s application, opponents say it doesn’t mean a student will be accepted. O’Hara said since other districts are using grades, their students will be at a further disadvantage when colleges consider who to accept and will even impact transfers to in-state and out-of-state districts.

Anderson compiled a list of at least 60 colleges and universities in California and out of state with their positions on letter grades or credit/no credit. All said they want as many data points as possible, including SAT or ACT scores, and evaluate other factors such as class ranking, athletics, clubs and community service.

“Dr. Haley made this unilateral decision without consulting the school board of directors. It was very disturbing the way it all went down,” O’Hara said. “We are very capable of making our own decision. We are asking this because many districts … are given the option.”

Another part of the debate has centered on a “holistic” view of a student’s profile. All those data points are included, plus letters of recommendation from teachers or administrators.

Those points also impact scholarship, merit funding and other financial aid opportunities for students.

“This is important because when colleges and universities consider students, they look at the school profile,” Vargas said. “Students in a school profile are compared to students within the same school district. This is important to note because when you have school districts that have grading choice, students that opted for grades will have a boosted GPA versus those who went with credit/no credit.

“While I don’t believe there is a perfect solution, Credit/No Credit is a balanced approach to ensure no student’s GPA is brought down and that we all move forward in an equitable manner.”

Haley, meanwhile, echoed those sentiments and said state schools are providing flexibility for incoming freshmen.

“Every institution of post-secondary institution we have contacted has said students, regardless of the grading system in place will not be negatively impacted by the spring 2020 semester,” he added. “I believe the Spring 2020 semester will result in significant changes in how post-secondary institutions look at the admissions process. UC Berkeley after instituting credit/no credit allowed students to petition for grades, if their professor agreed, however, said those grades would not be used for internal UC decisions.”

For more about the issue, listen to the North County Beat Podcast hosted by Kelli Kyle. A new episode airs May 15.

2 comments

Sandy Ho May 13, 2020 at 8:47 pm

Haley’s information is incorrect.

As a SDUHSD parent, I did some research myself on what college admissions said about the credit/no credit grading policy. Of the 25 schools surveyed, 5 do not even mention the issue; 15 do not give any type of no penalty assurance about credit grading, contrary to Haley’s assertion. And only 5 specifically said they will not penalize credit grading.
The truth is everything is open now and colleges really have not made a final decision.

Yet Haley, based on question data is imposing what he wants on over 13,000 SDUSD students. Not what a responsible Superintendent would do.

Ryan May 13, 2020 at 8:47 pm

Really great, well written article. My wife works in a local school district that has settled on the pass/fail or letter grade option. Whichever is to the benefit of the student, and there have been very few instances of pushback.

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