Courtesy of John Sasaki/Oakland Unified
A Skyline High School senior celebrates at his Oakland Unified School District graduation in 2018.

Oakland Unified’s school board Wednesday night voted unanimously to temporarily waive two graduation requirements — a 2.0 GPA in core courses and a senior project — to make it easier for students to earn their diplomas amid the pandemic.

“To me, this is a step in the right direction,” said board member Roseann Torres, who expressed concern about students who have been “missing” from online classes since district schools closed due to the coronavirus on March 13.

Many districts throughout the state have been considering modifications to their grading, assessment and graduation policies during the pandemic, said Troy Flint, spokesman for the California School Boards Association. But his organization does not have statistics regarding how many have done so. 

Like districts around the state and country, Oakland Unified is grappling with how to assess students’ academic work undertaken through distance learning while ensuring that they are not unnecessarily penalized by the upheavals they and the entire state are experiencing. This is consistent with state guidance that says students should be “held harmless” for what happens this spring.

Oakland’s graduation requirements, which are more rigorous than the state’s and those in some other California school districts, would be waived only during emergencies, according to the board’s decision.

The board voted to waive the requirement that students earn a 2.0 Grade Point Average, a C average, in core courses, such as English and math, that are required to graduate, during an emergency.

It also waives a requirement for seniors to complete a “capstone” project — which includes a research paper and presentation. Neither requirement is mandated by the state for graduation.

Under the new proposal, students would have to have a 1.0 GPA, a D or better, since students would still have to pass their classes.

After all district schools closed due to the coronavirus, the district and teachers’ union agreed to switch to a credit/no credit system instead of grades for high school students. This was because not all students had the access to computers and internet connections needed for distance learning. The University of California and California State University systems agreed to accept credit/no credit instead of grades due to the pandemic. 

But the credit/no credit system meant some students would have trouble meeting two of the district’s graduation requirements, said Lucia Moritz, high school network superintendent. It did not provide a way for seniors who were “on the cusp,” with GPAs of under 2.0, to bring up their grades, she said. And lack of access to digital devices and the internet may prevent some from completing their senior projects, which involve a great deal of research, she added.

About 10 or 11 students at every high school in the district had GPA’s ranging from 1.7 to 1.9 and “probably would have graduated with a 2.0 GPA if they had earned a letter grade this semester,” she told the board. In addition, she said, most students had already turned in a first draft of their senior projects, but the district didn’t want to penalize those who did not have “equitable access” to technology to complete the work.

The state has set minimum graduation requirements that include 13 core courses students must pass in subjects including English, math, social studies and physical education, which amount to 130 credits. There is no minimum state grade requirement. 

Two members of the public were split in their support for the Oakland proposal. One supported it and suggested the district should even go farther by giving all students “a universal pass” during this crisis. But another warned against promoting students who may not have earned the credits.

Board member Gary Yee expressed concern that the credit/no credit policy may also end up hurting students who are currently in grades 9 through 11, but may need to earn grades to boost their GPAs in the future. Although there is no current end date for the waiver, it gives the superintendent the authority to remove it and return to the more rigorous graduation requirements after the emergency has passed. It also authorizes the superintendent to put it back in place in the future if she deems it necessary, Moritz said.

Denilson Garibo, a 17-year-old senior at Oakland High, who is one of two student representatives on the school board, told EdSource before the meeting that he supported the proposed changes. Although his GPA is over 2.0 and he has already completed his research project, he said the changes would benefit others who are struggling to complete their schoolwork.

“This would encourage a lot of students to work on their assignments so they can graduate,” said Garibo, who was not able to attend the virtual meeting. “Some students don’t even find the motivation because of their living conditions or not having access to the internet. And some of my friends are having to work to be able to support their families. This would take another weight off their shoulders.”

The California School Boards Association has created a website with resources for districts interested in modifying their grading or graduation policies, Flint said.

“Ultimately, it’s a decision that local districts are making based on their specific contexts,” he said. “But overall, the attitude has been to avoid punitive approaches and to err on the side of understanding that students are facing incredible pressure and stress and many don’t have the environment or the tools to allow them to learn and participate in their education effectively. Schools across California need to be sensitive to the barriers that students are encountering.” 

Frequently asked questions on the state’s website note that many school boards have set graduation requirements beyond the state’s minimum and that the “local governing board has the authority to revise that policy and modify those additional requirements.”

When district schools closed, 71.3% of Oakland Unified seniors were on track to graduate and about 41.9% were expected to meet University of California and California State University course requirements, Moritz said. Last year, 72.3% of seniors graduated in four years and 50% completed the UC and CSU course requirements.

Board member Torres, who said she dropped out of high school when she was in the ninth grade, expressed empathy for students who may have lost interest in school since the pandemic hit.

“It’s hard to come back knowing you have to catch up,” she said. “So, I think this is a smart and innovative thing we have to do and I hope it brings more students back from being missing.”

Editor’s Note: As a special project, EdSource is tracking developments in the Oakland Unified and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts as a way to illustrate some of the challenges facing other urban districts in California. West Contra Costa Unified includes Richmond, El Cerrito and several other East Bay communities.

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  1. Randee Kirkemo 3 years ago3 years ago

    Our district, and around our county (Riverside) has adjusted our graduation requirements at our Alternative schools to the 130 state requirements. It has been an incredible help to all of our seniors who needed it.