After 18 months of distance learning, I took a breath before the start of this school year. What would the new normal look like? I feel like I’m still holding my breath, waiting for the proverbial shoe to drop that comes in the form of an end-of-semester report card.

As the mother of a newly minted middle school student and a high school junior, I knew this year would test my personal code of ethics about grades: Effort and improvement should supersede a letter. It’s a mantra my husband and I have long drilled into our children that’s built on the belief that it’s more important to learn to love learning than it is to chase a check mark. Personal growth should win the day.

During EdSource’s latest Roundtable series, “The Future of Grading: When Failure is Not an Option,” educators and experts acknowledged the need to reevaluate how students are graded.

It’s hard as a parent to stay true to your word about grades when you know California’s college admissions stack your children against their peers — not just those in the state but the ones they sit next to in class. A huge shortage of seats at California’s public four-year institutions has made applying for college feel like a scene from the “Hunger Games.”

A study by the College Futures Foundation estimates that the number of students who meet University of California and California State University admission requirements but can’t enroll because of the limited seats could nearly double over the next decade. The shortfall is particularly pronounced in the Los Angeles region, where UCLA this year posted an admission rate of about 10% for California freshman applicants. (In 1995, it was as high as 42%.)

I try not to think about it and instead have committed to prioritizing the mental health of my children, particularly amid a pandemic that has contributed to learning loss and stunted socialization nationwide. Last week, the U.S. surgeon general issued a public health advisory on an emerging mental health crisis among youth: Symptoms of depression and anxiety have doubled during the pandemic.

Grading, they say, should focus on how you finish the race, not how you start.

I’ve seen the anxiety build in my own home this year despite my attempts — from tears when a grade drops from an “A” to a “A-” to the confidence-crushing defeat when hours of work and study fail to deliver an expected outcome. Even encouraging one-on-one communication with a teacher about a lesson or a grade can send my kids into a tailspin in ways I’ve not seen before.

Nidya Baez, assistant principal at Fremont High School in Oakland Unified, said that during the pandemic, teachers had to rethink how they evaluated students. It’s only natural that it continues, she says, as the stress of grades, test scores and being compared to peers takes its toll.

Some students with high GPAs and test scores “are still walking out of your classroom feeling pretty defeated,” she said during last week’s Roundtable. “You talk to them, and they are just devastated.”

The pandemic has accelerated the debate among educators that began years ago that questions whether traditional grading methods are failing students.

While some teachers and districts have responded by moving toward the elimination of Ds and Fs, a controversial move many educators do not agree on, the overriding goal is to offer meaningful feedback and encouragement. Grading, they say, should focus on how you finish the race, not how you start.

“You can’t say, ‘I believe in social and emotional learning; I believe in resilience, in bouncing back, and then turn around and use the average and say…‘I’m going to punish you today for mistakes you made three months ago,’” Douglas Reeves, author of dozens of books about education leadership and student achievement, said during last week’s Roundtable. “You can’t use the average.”

The practice of assessing students based on what they’ve learned, not on how they perform on tests or whether they turn in homework on time, is known as competency — or mastery-based learning. In addition to eliminating the average, it involves allowing for test retakes, revisions to essays and other fluid measurements that allow a student to demonstrate progress and effort toward meeting a standard.

At Lindsay Unified School District, leaders 10 years ago implemented a performance-based grading system that fosters a “growth mindset,” which became a common mantra in many districts throughout the pandemic. Whether grading based on competency requires more work on the part of teachers, Guadalupe Alvarez-Smith, the district’s curriculum and instruction specialist, says teachers always have to work hard, no matter the system.

“It is a lot of work differentiating and customizing, but is it more work?” Alvarez-Smith asked. “No, because that’s all we’ve known.”

Grading reform is not about lowering standards or coddling kids, educators echoed last week, but rather how to improve learning and, ultimately, how to be a better teacher. It also doesn’t have to be complicated — one or two small steps can be all a teacher needs to get going. Lydia Rocha-Salazar, who works with California’s CORE districts, a collaboration between several of the state’s largest school districts, said teachers evolve in their approach once they commit to change.

“We think there is a natural progression that can take place within the work that will serve both the teachers and the students well,” said Rocha-Salazar, a senior improvement coach.

Mauricio Rangel, a science teacher at Overfelt High School in San Jose, said it’s difficult to make this change in isolation. At Overfelt, the shift in grading began during the pandemic when a handful of teachers started to try things that they otherwise may not have had the motivation to try during pre-pandemic times. They began offering retakes on assignments, retesting and getting rid of the average.

Rangel said he and his peers are better for it. And as for the students, he said: “I have much more clarity of their content knowledge and skills than I ever have before.”

At EdSource, we’ve been chronicling education reforms long before the first Covid-19 diagnosis. As the pandemic took hold, we saw the potential for how distance learning could alter learning inside the classroom for years to come.

How teachers grade students is shaping up to be one of those reforms in which the pandemic created a window of opportunity. Time will tell.

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  1. Ken Hall 10 months ago10 months ago

    Thank you, Anne. I appreciate everything that was said in your article and the interview. But I look back, now a huge number of decades when I was in high school, and my ambition was to get a great grade. I wanted as many A's as I could and would be saddened if it was a B+. A no grade system, or anything other than a high letter grade would have left … Read More

    Thank you, Anne. I appreciate everything that was said in your article and the interview. But I look back, now a huge number of decades when I was in high school, and my ambition was to get a great grade. I wanted as many A’s as I could and would be saddened if it was a B+. A no grade system, or anything other than a high letter grade would have left me behind. The letter grade was my measurement of accomplishment. I thrived on the competition. A no letter grading system would have led me to failure not accomplishment.
    Ken Hall, Former President of the Ed Source Board

  2. Chris Stampolis 10 months ago10 months ago

    Ms. Vasquez, thank you for your column and for your willingness to engage with readers. Please consider that for this high school class of 2024, it is the first class in California's modern history that imposes an academic death penalty in first semester of 10th grade regarding admissions to most University of California campuses. I know that is tough language, but here's the facts - with completely accurate, but very challenging language to accept: 1) it … Read More

    Ms. Vasquez, thank you for your column and for your willingness to engage with readers.

    Please consider that for this high school class of 2024, it is the first class in California’s modern history that imposes an academic death penalty in first semester of 10th grade regarding admissions to most University of California campuses. I know that is tough language, but here’s the facts – with completely accurate, but very challenging language to accept:

    1) it is illegal for UC and CSU admissions officers to consider senior year (12th grade) grades, with the exception of allowing those courses to meet the check-off list for A to G requirements, but not in any case at all for GPA evaluation purposes. Any CSU or UC admissions officer who looks at 12th grade grades to make an admissions decision is subject to immediate termination. (If you don’t believe this, please use your position to confirm or refute my assertion.)

    2) Only 10th and 11th grade courses may be considered for GPA purposes at UC and CSU admissions decisions. They all are considered equally – a first semester 10th grade mark is considered identical to a second semester 11th grade mark for purposes of who gets in and who is left outside the moat. Perfection across the four semesters is what mostly is required.

    3) It now is illegal for UC Admissions officers to consider any scores on SAT or ACT exams for admissions purposes to any UC campus for the Class of 2024. Any UC admissions officer who looks at an SAT or ACT score to make an admissions decision for the high school class of 2024 is subject to immediate termination. (Again, please use your role at EdSource to affirm or refute my factual assertion.)

    4) CSU still has a possibility to change for applications submitted November 30, 2023 (Class of 2024), but currently for the classes of 2022 and 2023, it is illegal for CSU admissions officers to consider SAT or ACT grades in deciding who is admitted to a particular campus

    5) The effect of this policy means that a student who blurps with a few B grades or a C grade during first semester of 10th grade’s GPA, but gets focused and rolls straight A grades through the end of 11th grade earns a 1430 or a 1500 or even an absolutely perfect 1600 on the SAT absolutely will have zero chance for admission to UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC San Diego and, probably, UC Santa Barbara because of the blurps in the early 10th grade grades. There is too much competition and a B in Honors English 10 absolutely will destroy a UC application, compared to an A in regular 10th grade English. No grade boost for many of these Honors classes after the recent realignment.

    6) As a side note about the SAT debate, a wealthy student is much more likely to obtain a tutor who increases that student’s GPA performance. To prepare for the SAT/ACT, any poor student may check out a professional SAT/ACT preparation book from the public library for free. Would a tutor help? Possibly. But taking and retaking and retaking practice SAT/ACT exams is what improves a student’s SAT/ACT scores. For GPA, if a student needs a bit of help with Algebra 2 or Honors Chemistry or AP History, etc., where is a poor student going to get that help?

    7) Latina students statewide now are the dominant demographic for CSU success and for US success at almost every campus. As soon as Latina students took over and white students fell to third place in both the CSU and the UC systems, suddenly the Regents and the Trustees get rid of SAT/ACT scores to eliminate admission opportunities for students of color and to reinforce white privilege and power. The wealthy kids are the ones with access to tutors to improve GPAs and white high school teachers make up 2/3 of the secondary school teaching work force.

    Do we really think that giving kids no options to make up for the first semester of 10th grade will open doors for students of color who work part-time jobs and would continue to work hard if they know their 2nd semester of 10th grade and their 11th grade scores and a solid SAT still can get them into a chosen UC campus?

    I suggest that by eliminating SAT/ACT scores as an extra data point for students to demonstrate achievement, the state has just pulled off the most pro-white, pro-rich decision in the history of California as a way to keep white enrollment percentages from continuing to drop at CSU and UC campuses. And for kids on the autism spectrum who may not figure out their needs until mid-high-school, good luck to them on navigating an almost completely subjective grading system throughout 10th grade.

    There certainly is lots of pressure for the students, but better to keep this factual for the kids so they can make real decisions based on the stressful situation that the grown-ups in California have created and imposed on the teens.

    – Chris Stampolis
    Santa Clara, CA

  3. el 10 months ago10 months ago

    One of the ways I think about this is creating a few different paths to an A. This might be by showing clear mastery throughout the semester, or it might be by acing the final exam. I also think it can be helpful to have more points possible than the total needed for 100%. This sounds weird, so here are some examples. 1. You want kids to participate, so you make 20% of the grade classroom … Read More

    One of the ways I think about this is creating a few different paths to an A. This might be by showing clear mastery throughout the semester, or it might be by acing the final exam. I also think it can be helpful to have more points possible than the total needed for 100%. This sounds weird, so here are some examples.

    1. You want kids to participate, so you make 20% of the grade classroom participation. This sounds awesome and fair until you realize that the best grade a student can get without participating is 80%. And, in your classroom, you might have a student with a stutter, a student for whom English is a 3rd language, a student who is very shy, and students who for whatever reason really prefer to have a chance to really think about their answers in a process that takes more time than a rapid fire classroom question-answer period.

    On the other hand, you have a student who doesn’t quite write the best essays but who shows remarkable insights in this format. So thinking of this as maybe extra credit, as an *additional* way to show mastery, may be more appropriate than expecting every student in the class to be able to show mastery in this form.

    2. I’ve seen the format where the class typically has two exams plus a final, and allowing the final exam grade to replace one of the midterm grades. This way botching one midterm (or missing it due to some personal disaster) can still be recovered at the end of the class. IE there’s always hope!

    3. Allowing for assignments that can replace or augment exam grades let students recover from troubles early in the class, and also do more learning.

    4. Having a drop score in each category when possible seems to help with all kinds of issues. Whether you get that for free or through extra credit is maybe flexible.

    5. Removing high-stakes ti events IME improves student confidence and learning. Letting students build up extra credit before the final exam makes them less anxious AND ALSO is a chance to build up their subject matter knowledge before the exam. Allowing the possibility of a solid, needed grade up to the very end keeps them trying to the end. Creating a situation where a student can have shown that mastery before the final in many small steps OR can make up for failures *with* the final seems to create the most opportunity and reward for hard work and mastery across the whole semester.

  4. Deborah Meyer-Morris 10 months ago10 months ago

    This proposal completely omits any discussion of the lack of access by California students in special education, many of whom have been denied independent study or reasonable accommodations in their IEPs for almost two years. How can a school or university admissions officer measure a disabled students’ progress or effort when these students haven’t received their individualized education plans services or academic supports in their IEPs for almost two years or in many … Read More

    This proposal completely omits any discussion of the lack of access by California students in special education, many of whom have been denied independent study or reasonable accommodations in their IEPs for almost two years. How can a school or university admissions officer measure a disabled students’ progress or effort when these students haven’t received their individualized education plans services or academic supports in their IEPs for almost two years or in many cases been denied the ability to attend school remotely due solely to a medical condition? Equitable access to higher education in California is an issue for all students, particularly so for students in special education who already face funding deficits, low expectations and bias. One size Public education never fit all students. This discussion on meeting individual students educational needs where they are is long overdue- but let’s talk about the underfunded elephant in the room that isn’t even part of the K-12 LCAP unduplicated student count and funding formula or the CSU #GI2025 – students with disabilities.

  5. Erik Kengaard 10 months ago10 months ago

    "UCLA this year posted an admission rate of about 10% ?" "42% in 1995?" It would be helpful to know more about demographic dynamics, public social policies, tax policies and application patterns that produced this result. If from 100,000 students each applied to ten universities, and 10,000 were accepted at each university, then would not the admission rate be 10%? Whereas under a different application pattern, the same result in actual admission would correspond to … Read More

    “UCLA this year posted an admission rate of about 10% ?” “42% in 1995?”
    It would be helpful to know more about demographic dynamics, public social policies, tax policies and application patterns that produced this result.
    If from 100,000 students each applied to ten universities, and 10,000 were accepted at each university, then would not the admission rate be 10%? Whereas under a different application pattern, the same result in actual admission would correspond to 100% admissions. What am I missing?

    Replies

  6. Erik Kengaard 10 months ago10 months ago

    " . . . . assessing students based on what they’ve learned, not on how they perform on tests or whether they turn in homework on time, is known as competency . . . . . it involves allowing for test retakes, revisions to essays and other fluid measurements that allow a student to demonstrate progress and effort toward meeting a standard?" Sounds rather squishy. Would be helpful to learn more about "other … Read More

    ” . . . . assessing students based on what they’ve learned, not on how they perform on tests or whether they turn in homework on time, is known as competency . . . . . it involves allowing for test retakes, revisions to essays and other fluid measurements that allow a student to demonstrate progress and effort toward meeting a standard?”
    Sounds rather squishy. Would be helpful to learn more about “other fluid measurements,” “demonstration” of “progress and effort toward meeting a standard.”

    Replies

    • el 10 months ago10 months ago

      An example of an alternate assessment might be asking a student to give a 10 minute presentation on a class topic. For example, I listened to a podcast of a UC Davis class from about 10 years ago, and the professor allowed this as an assignment that could replace an exam grade. By most measures, this is an assignment that would require showing more mastery than a mere exam, but on the other hand, it … Read More

      An example of an alternate assessment might be asking a student to give a 10 minute presentation on a class topic. For example, I listened to a podcast of a UC Davis class from about 10 years ago, and the professor allowed this as an assignment that could replace an exam grade. By most measures, this is an assignment that would require showing more mastery than a mere exam, but on the other hand, it allows for the student to put much more time into it and constantly check and recheck their work until they can reach a quality presentation.

      Exams may feel comprehensive but they have some limitations.
      – They tend to reward students who can come to an answer quickly over those who work more slowly
      – Multiple choice exams can trip up students who overthink or know too much about a topic, because they know about weird exceptions or special cases
      – For students who do not have English as their first language, both points above are more likely to apply
      – An exam measures a student on one particular day, which may not be a good day for that student for reasons outside their control.
      – An exam lets you walk away from the subject with misconceptions in your head about what was correct and not correct, without maybe having the opportunity to fix or relearn the pieces that weren’t right.

      Similarly, a research essay can have a similar function – it’s a harder assignment and will take more time, but it is more forgiving and a better diagnostic as to what the student actually does and doesn’t understand.

      There are experiments that show that, for example, the exercise of filling out an exam with the correct answers after seeing what the correct answers are, dramatically improves scores on future exams. The ability to see what you got wrong in real time is valuable for learning how to do better and cementing the correct information.

      Mastery is actually a much higher standard, and I welcome the changes that cause people to look back at their rubrics that may inadvertently result in students making unrecoverable errors at the beginning of the semester, making the rest of the semester a waste of their time. You never want to be in a situation where your smart students say, “Actually, I’m not going to bother doing any of the rest of the homework, because I no longer can mathematically pass this class according to your rules and rubric.”

  7. Pamela Benjamin 10 months ago10 months ago

    Agree, the acceptance rates at US large state universities crowd out local candidates. It’s absolutely horrible. The large schools want the best of the best international students, but residents are the ones who fund these schools.