OPINION: Superintendent’s grading policy undercuts the underprivileged

by Cooper Bowen and Sofia Rossi

National/World Editors

On Fri., Apr. 24, LGSUHSD Superintendent Mike Grove announced that all students would have the choice to “[be] graded under a Credit/No Credit (C/NC) model or under a traditional A-F letter grade model,” consistent for all their courses during the Spring 2020 semester. Dr. Grove’s choice represents nothing more than a watered-down and ill-advised attempt to please all concerned parties; in reality, he has failed to address institutionalized classism and inherent privilege prevalent throughout the education system, including our school district.

As the COVID-19 pandemic forces students across the country to embrace remote learning over traditional in-person classes, the significance of economic and social inequalities has magnified exponentially. Students with ready access to a private workspace, electronic devices, and the internet can more easily adjust to online learning. However, students who lack these resources, as well as those who face financial hardship or a tumultuous home environment, must overcome more severe obstacles to attain or preserve high letter grades. This does not even include the many students with learning disabilities who depend on school-provided accommodations in order to learn efficiently.

It is these students—the ones facing disproportionate adversity or learning disabilities—that a C/NC system most directly benefits during remote learning. By removing the distinction between an A letter grade and a D letter grade, this system recognizes the inability of disadvantaged students to perform at the same level as more privileged students.

However, Dr. Grove’s decision to allow students to choose whether to go C/NC or keep their traditional letter grades undermines the objective of a C/NC system: to decrease inequality and level the playing field. Rather, his model cements existing disparities; students with high grades will logically choose to keep their letter grades, and students with low grades will undoubtedly choose to go C/NC.

Much of the argument against adopting a C/NC system emerges from the legitimate belief that students’ work from the first half of the second semester would go to waste. At first glance, a more effective system to avoid this drawback would have been a grade floor—a model in which students’ final grades cannot drop below the letter grade they had on Mar. 13. This was one popular proposal of seven that Dr. Grove examined, though he ultimately did not implement it. Unfortunately, a grade floor model errs in its assumption that all students would have the same ability to raise their grades during a global pandemic; in reality, disadvantaged students and those with chronic physical and mental health conditions disproportionately struggle. This would subsequently result in the squandering of only under-privileged students’ work, while more fortunate individuals can still reap the fruits of their labor.

Dr. Grove’s announcement of an optional C/NC system perpetuates this persistent inequality, combining and exacerbating the failures of a grade floor system and the drawbacks of a C/NC system into one botched grade model. Because disadvantaged students face greater obstacles in their efforts to maintain high letter grades during remote learning, they will be far more likely to opt for C/NC grades. As a result, the work these students completed before the shelter-in-place began will, in a sense, go to waste; the opposite is true for privileged students, who experience less adversity in preserving high grades and are thus far more likely to choose the letter system.

By enacting this model, Dr. Grove also gives high-performing students the option to impress colleges in a way that underprivileged students—who were already at a severe disadvantage prior to the COVID-19 outbreak—cannot. Much of the remaining trepidation in adopting C/NC grades stems from concerns that it would negatively impact the college applications of LGHS students. However, colleges and universities across the country negated these fears after they released widespread announcements of relaxed application standards.

In a message specifically addressing high school juniors, Harvard University acknowledged that many prospective applicants will only be able to submit pass/fail grades for the spring 2020 semester and promised that such students “[would] not be disadvantaged as a result.” Shortly after, the University of California system agreed to “[suspend] the letter grade requirement for A-G courses completed in winter/spring/summer 2020 for all students, including UC’s most recently admitted freshmen.”

While this may also seem to mitigate qualms about Dr. Grove’s model—implying that students who choose C/NC will not be penalized—in reality, it’s much more complicated. A C/NC system only works if the entire school adopts it. Student applicants now more than ever will be judged in the context of their schools, as there is no standardized expectation or national precedent as schools rush to adapt to distance learning. It is questionable to assume colleges will treat two students applying from the same high school, one with C/NC grades and one with letter grades, as equals.

Furthermore, it is problematic to assume colleges could simply eliminate bias in the admissions process—a system already rigged in favor of the wealthy and well-connected. Why in the height of a global pandemic, where existing educational disparities are grotesquely amplified, would this institutionalized classism suddenly disappear?

According to a New Yorker article published on Apr. 28, “Some colleges have eliminated letter grades entirely this spring, switching all courses to a pass-fail system. Others have given students the choice between letter grades and pass-fail grades; meanwhile, some graduate schools, like Harvard Medical School, [warned] prospective applicants that pass-fail grades would be viewed neutrally only from colleges that instituted a temporary universal pass-fail system. (Yale made pass-fail optional at first, and… students lobbied successfully to make the policy universal.)” Although this forewarning only applies directly to graduate students, it will almost certainly parallel the reality for those applying to undergraduate programs from schools with an optional C/NC system.*

Regardless of whether or not colleges will overlook inconsistencies in the LGHS grading model, there exists an inarguable benefit for high-performing students choosing to keep their letter grades. As dictated by Dr. Grove, for those who opt out of the C/NC system, “all A-F letter grades earned will be included in a student’s GPA in the same way they always have been.” This unfairly aids students in conducive environments who, in turn, receive a GPA boost when submitting letter grades over C/NC.

Other high-performing high school districts across the Bay Area have considered this inequity and moved to change their respective grading systems accordingly. 

The superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD), Dr. Don Austin, announced his decision to implement a school-wide, non-optional C/NC grade model on Mar. 25—a month before Dr. Grove released his plan.  Dr. Austin himself penned an Op-Ed on Linked-In outlining the necessity of adopting a mandatory C/NC system at the beginning of this month. “It is irrational to believe anything other than a growth in the achievement gap is likely as services, connections, and resources are stripped from the students most in need. Memorializing the slide [of grades] with a traditional letter grade is cruel, unnecessary, and indefensible,” he argued.

Michalis Gordon, an assistant principal at Henry M. Gunn High School—which also established Dr. Austin’s plan on Mar. 25—spoke further with El Gato News on PAUSD’s motivations behind their new grading model: “Not all students may have access to high-speed internet, a computer of their own, or even the ability or time to do the work; [for example], they may be asked to provide care for their siblings while their parents are working essential jobs. Also, [forcing] teachers to change [their] curriculum, provide alternative assessments, [and] assure that the work completed by students is their own were all factors, among others, to move to a Credit/No Credit policy that would not put other students at a disadvantage.”

Such factors caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have induced greater occurrences of anxiety and depression among students and staff, undeniably exacerbated by weeks of social isolation. Ranging from socio-economic hardship to the very real risk of contracting coronavirus, the effects of this moment in history are indiscriminate and devastating. Regardless, it is crucial to ensure that students still receive an education, even in the midst of a global health crisis. What is not essential, however, are the grades that traditionally define student performance; currently, they are an unnecessary burden that adds pointless and excessive stress to students’ lives.

In his decision, Dr. Grove further contributes to students’ stress by shirking his responsibility as superintendent and forcing LGHS students and families to make this choice for him. Dr. Grove should have used this opportunity to eliminate some of the stress from the student body. Instead, he has chosen to force this decision on the thousands of families who are far less informed than he and his administration.

Perhaps the most misleading element of Dr. Grove’s grading model is his claim that it brings “the best balance of potential benefits vs. potential drawbacks for the greatest number of students.” This embrace of utilitarianism exposes Dr. Grove’s true colors: at LGHS, the disadvantaged are a minority of the student body; thus, their needs are not the primary priority of the superintendent. Dr. Grove’s optional C/NC system caters to the desires of privileged individuals at the expense of those who genuinely need assistance. 

Dr. Grove has failed to address the very reasons why remote learning necessitates a drastic change to the traditional grading model. LGHS should have adopted an obligatory, school-wide C/NC model in order to provide all students with an equal opportunity to succeed. No LGHS students would be disadvantaged as a result of a school-wide C/NC system; numerous other high schools across the Bay Area have already committed to such a model. Not only would it have lessened rampant inequalities in the education system amplified by a nationwide shift to remote learning, but it also would have eliminated the unnecessary stress Dr. Grove has now forced upon students and their families.

In a school so often defined by the privilege of its community, it is a shame that the superintendent has neglected the needs of the disadvantaged minority. Now more than ever, LGHS must avoid affirming the status of the already privileged. This decision could have been an opportunity to reflect a commitment to every individual student, especially those who are suffering the most—even if, to use Dr. Grove’s own words, they don’t make up the “greatest number.” 

(Sources: Harvard College, University of California, Linked-In, New Yorker)


*(A previous version of this article did not include the New Yorker quotation and the paragraph directly prior.)

For more information about the benefits of a non-optional C/NC policy, visit the links below:

Crescendo Education Group

Santa Clara County Office of Education

California Department of Education

The Crimson – Harvard Law School Shifts to Mandatory Credit-Fail Grading System

The Crimson – Harvard Law School Students Call for Uniform Grading Policy

The Crimson – Harvard Releases Guidance for High Schoolers Applying During Pandemic

Yale Daily News – Yale College Council, 68 percent of students support universal pass/no-credit

Daily Northwestern – University-wide Pass/No Pass policy sparks campus debate

The New Yorker – How the Coronavirus Pandemic Has Shattered the Myth of College in America

New York Times – Should the Virus Mean Straight A’s for Everyone?



Categories: Opinion, Web Exclusive

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