Editorial Editor and Opinion Editor
In an age when toilet paper runs in short supply and America’s imminent societal and economic future remains more uncertain than ever, high school students across the nation now agonize over whether online learning will hinder their prospects in the college application process. In response to these worries within LGSUHSD, Superintendent Michael Grove announced a new grading policy on Apr. 24 that grants students the choice between “being graded under a Credit/No Credit (C/NC) model or under a traditional A-F letter grade model” for the 2020 spring semester. The deadline for submitting a request for C/NC grades is noon on Wednesday, June 10, with letter grades remaining as the default for students who do not submit requests.
On Apr. 28, El Gato staff members Cooper Bowen and Sofia Rossi published an Opinion article criticizing Dr. Grove for his blended grading policy that allegedly “fail[s] to address institutionalized classism and inherent privilege prevalent throughout the education system, including our school district.” Claiming that the grading model harms disadvantaged students in college admissions because their circumstances force them to choose C/NC, Bowen and Rossi advocate for a district-wide C/NC system in which no students receive traditional letter grades.
In this case, the grass is not greener on the other side: Dr. Grove’s grading policy provides the freedom for students to receive recognition for their academic efforts, while still accommodating students whose academic performance has been compromised by the pandemic.
The argument for a blanket C/NC grading system is flawed for two main reasons. First, choosing C/NC does not actually harm underprivileged students in the application process because admissions officers consider each individual’s unique family circumstances, not just the affluence of their high school. Second, forcing all students to switch to C/NC invalidates all the hard work students have done throughout the semester to earn their letter grades.
Especially in the past few decades, American institutions of higher education have increasingly emphasized “holistic review,” which considers many aspects of an applicant’s background beyond just academics. Because of this philosophy of holistic review, colleges and universities also now acknowledge individual hardships that applicants have faced and use these details to inform their decision-making process. This philosophy has not diminished due to COVID-19; if anything, admissions officers will adhere to it even more strongly in light of the pandemic.
As one of many universities that abides by holistic review, the University of Pennsylvania states on its admissions website, “Our admissions process has always relied on what we call “whole person review:” the practice of considering each student’s individual context and environment as we learn through their applications about their lived experiences, their achievements, and the academic and personal contributions they have made in their respective communities. This philosophy will continue in the age of COVID-19.” Regarding COVID-19 complications with the admissions process, the University of Southern California declared, “We will handle these concerns on a case-by-case basis and are committed to being as flexible as possible with our applicants.” Finally, in a press release by the University of California regarding temporary measures to relax admissions requirements for prospective students, the Office of the President wrote, “These measures will help mitigate some of the extraordinary challenges students and their families face in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The Common Application, used by most American universities, provides an optional “Additional Information” section where students may use up to 650 words – the same length as the Personal Statement – to describe their unique circumstances for admissions officers to take into account when reviewing their applications, which would encompass circumstances students faced during the pandemic. Many students also choose to mention hardships that they’ve faced in their Personal Statements, since adversity often occupies a dramatic role in shaping their lives and worldviews. Additionally, if students communicate with their teachers and guidance counselors about online learning limitations and work with them to adjust accordingly, the teachers and counselors have the chance to highlight this background in their letters of recommendation. Students have plenty of opportunities to provide admissions officers context about their individual family circumstances during the COVID-19 pandemic, regardless of their school’s overall socio-economic situation.
Bowen and Rossi claim that “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.” What Bowen and Rossi forget to acknowledge is that colleges will also not treat these two students the same if one’s home situation hinders him from learning and the other’s home situation is conducive to learning. The contextualization of disadvantaged students’ circumstances therefore offsets the “harm” of choosing C/NC, assuming there even is a subconscious bias at all by admissions officers towards students with letter grades.
The bottom line is this: with the blended grading policy, students should not worry about opting for C/NC if their circumstances demand it because college admissions officers will take those circumstances into account.
Furthermore, many students who aren’t in these tough situations greatly appreciate Dr. Grove’s decision to allow a choice between traditional letter grades or C/NC. LGHS senior Reagen Riggins values the chance to keep letter grades so she can “keep [her] grades higher in order to obtain a higher scholarship for college.” Bowen and Rossi claim that “no LGHS students would be disadvantaged as a result of a school-wide C/NC system,” but in fact this system would possibly rob Riggins, as well as other students, of the chance to receive more merit-based financial aid. Furthermore, in an article published on Apr. 30, the New York Times articulated the view that “it is low-income students who stand to benefit the most from earning grades because they may not have the other resume boosters – international travel, essay-writing tutors, expensive summer classes – that can help set a college application apart.”
The Times also interviewed Rosa Jeronimo-Flores, a junior at Capuchino High School in San Mateo, who must finish her schoolwork in the morning so her brother can use her laptop in the afternoon. Jeronimo-Flores’s family lives in a one-bedroom apartment, forcing her to seek peace and quiet in her mother’s car for online learning. Despite these logistical learning obstacles, Jeronimo-Flores still told the Times that she wants to receive grades for this semester since she is working towards her dream job as a paramedic or veterinarian. Jeronimo-Flores is only one of many disadvantaged students who have encountered numerous difficulties due to the pandemic, and yet still prefer letter grades over C/NC due to her academic and career aspirations.
Forcing everyone at LGHS and SHS under the C/NC system would not benefit the students who would choose C/NC regardless of the option for letter grades; it only restricts freedom for any student who wants letter grades.
Not only would a blanket C/NC grading system erase all tangible records of the hard work students have done in the pre-shelter-in-place era, but it would also cause students to lose motivation to learn material and participate in their classes. LGHS junior class president Kevin Miller affirms this, stating, “I worked really hard to achieve and maintain A’s [this semester] and I might give up on my hard work if the C/NC system was implemented.”
“If everyone’s forced to do C/NC, a lot of people would just stop trying and learning in their classes because their end grades would be the same for a widely-differing range of effort,” added Marcus Kuo, a sophomore at Saratoga High School. Obligatory C/NC grading disincentivizes learning and allows students to neglect their schoolwork without repercussions, since the work required to earn an A in a class would be identical on a transcript to the work required to earn a D. Though the grading policy states that “all students are expected to attend all class meetings and to complete all course assignments and assessments as usual,” students can easily join Google Meets without paying attention or submit half-hearted assignments if their grades aren’t at stake.
When Superintendent Grove conducted the initial research phase for various grading policies, he relied on input from an advisory group consisting of students who generally struggle in school, middle-range students, high-achieving students, parents, administrators, counselors, and teachers. When he took a straw poll on grading model preference from the advisory group members, he discovered no trend or cluster in the responses between the participant categories; the results were “all over the map.” What Grove did find was that over 80% of the respondents favored a model other than a complete C/NC system, meaning that they favored a model involving letter grades to some extent.
“We want to give students and families choice because that engenders agency and a feeling that students are in control over their education,” Grove explained to El Gato News. “I think, quite honestly, it’s arrogant of me to assume that I know what’s best for 3,500 students who all have unique goals they’re pursuing in their academic careers and to assume I know enough about their individual struggles and circumstances in their homes to come up with a one-size-fits-all policy like C/NC. I feel that our students and families are best positioned to make decisions about what’s in their best interest.”
If anything, the blended grading model weeds out students who do not take responsibility for learning as best they can in their unique circumstances. If a lazy student with ample learning resources wants to use C/NC as a cover for neglecting their school work, colleges will rightly question why this student actively chose C/NC without any excuse of a difficult home environment or other learning challenges. If a student is in a difficult situation caused by the pandemic that hinders their learning, then they can share this with colleges in their application to put their decision for C/NC into context. The blended grading policy makes sense for all potential situations.
“I always think choices and options are the best thing for all students and was surprised by the objections, even though the student writers made some very compelling points,” said Kristen Austin, who teaches AP Language and Composition and creative writing at LGHS. “I hope that efforts made by teachers and staff to support and accommodate those struggling with negative circumstances will help make the grading policy option less of an issue. I also know a lot of my students, including the disadvantaged and underprivileged, have worked really hard and thrived; I would hate to take away evidence of their hard work.”
Finally, it is unfair of Bowen and Rossi to denigrate Dr. Grove as having “neglected the needs of the disadvantaged minority” based on this decision. Our district administration has demonstrated countless times that it cares for its students, whether by offering technology and WiFi to students who lack resources for online school or providing free school lunches to students in need long before the pandemic began. Dr. Grove’s decision about the grading model represents his consideration for the various groups of students and families involved. It is wrong to claim that our Superintendent neglected to address “institutionalized classism” with his “ill-advised attempt to please all concerned parties,” in the words of Bowen and Rossi. The problems students face due to distance learning arose because of the COVID-19 pandemic and require new and sensible solutions, such as the one Dr. Grove made regarding the grading policy.
For more information, students and families may refer to LGSUHSD’s new web page titled “Grading Decision Resources” that serves as a centralized location for updates regarding the new grading policy. The web page also provides webinars, university statements, FAQ’s, and other resources to help students and families decide between letter grades or C/NC.
Ultimately, the C/NC option does not put students at a disadvantage in college admissions if their circumstances require it, and the option for traditional letter grades optimizes rewards for students for putting effort into learning.
(Sources: LGSUHSD, NY Times, University of Pennsylvania, University of Southern California, University of California)