Alison Yin for EdSource
Dropping D's and F's is a step toward competency-based learning.
This story was updated on Dec. 14,2021 to reflect Oakland Unified's grading policy considerations.

Some of California’s largest school districts are trying an unconventional tactic to help students re-engage in school after distance learning and boost their chances of acceptance into the state’s public colleges: by dropping D and F grades.

Los Angeles Unified, Sacramento City Unified and other districts are considering phasing out grades below a C for high school students. If a student fails a test or doesn’t complete their homework, they’ll be able to retake the test and get more time to turn in assignments. The idea is to encourage students to learn the course material and not be derailed by a low grade that could potentially disqualify them from admission to the University of California and California State University. Students who don’t learn the material, pass the final exam or finish homework by the end of the semester would earn an “incomplete.”

“Our hope is that students begin to see school as a place of learning, where they can take risks and learn from mistakes, instead of a place of compliance,” said Nidya Baez, assistant principal at Fremont High in Oakland Unified, which is considering dropping Ds. “Right now, we have a system where we give a million points for a million pieces of paper that students turn in, without much attention to what they’re actually learning.”

Although education reform advocates have been pushing for this for years, the pandemic offered an opportunity for districts to put it into action. With so many students languishing academically after a year of distance learning, districts see dropping D’s and F’s as a way to help students who had been most impacted by the pandemic, especially Black, Latino and low-income students.

But the move is also, potentially, a step toward an entirely different learning system, in which students are assessed by what they’ve learned, not how well they perform on tests on a given day or whether they turn in their homework on time. Known as competency — or mastery-based learning — the style has been a staple of some private and charter schools for years, and a goal for education reformers trying to overhaul the traditional high school system.

“Instruction is what leads to learning. Not grading. They’re separate. That’s the problem — we have a disconnect between instruction, learning and grading,” said Alix Gallagher, director of strategic partnerships at Policy Analysis for California Education.

While traditional grading may have worked for previous generations, a competency-based system is better suited for the rapidly changing workplace of the future, said Devin Vodicka, former superintendent of Vista Unified in San Diego County and chief executive of the Learner-Centered Collaborative, a nonprofit that helps districts shift to competency-based learning.

“We need a system that gets beyond the institutional model and provides more meaningful feedback for students,” Vodicka said. “The future is going to require less focus on time and more focus on what we can do and contribute, and the quality of our performance. We need to prepare our students for this.”

At most high schools, grades are linked to time; a grade reflects how well a student has performed on tests and homework by the end of a semester. Grades can open doors to advanced classes and are the primary component of college admissions, especially since universities like UC and CSU temporarily dropped standardized tests as part of the admissions criteria.

But they’re notoriously subjective. The state Education Code gives teachers the authority to issue grades, but it doesn’t specify how those grades should be determined. Some teachers grade on a curve, with only a set number of students earning A’s or B’s, while others are more lax. An informal EdSource survey of about two dozen California teachers found that 57% rarely or never gave D.s and F’s. Only 7% said they did frequently.

“Grades are punitive and provide no information on standards mastery,” one teacher wrote. “I would love (grading) to be based on mastery of standards and … authentic feedback.”

But for some teachers, Ds and Fs play an important role in the classroom. They signal that a student did not learn the material and needs extra help. Dropping Ds and Fs doesn’t guarantee that students will learn the material, even with extra help, and may lead to grade inflation, said Debora Rinehart, a math and science teacher at St. Theresa School, a Catholic school in Oakland.

“I will work with any student before or after school or even on the weekend to help them learn. However, I will never lie about their knowledge level,” she said. “Not reporting Ds and Fs is the equivalent of lying about a student’s progress.”

But the vast difference in teachers’ grading styles has resulted in a system where grades are nearly useless as an indicator of students’ abilities, said Alix Gallagher, director of strategic partnerships at Policy Analysis for California Education.

“What does a grade mean? It’s a mix of things, and it’s different from teacher to teacher. It can actually be radically different,” she said. “As it’s practiced now, grading is idiosyncratic, and that’s not a good thing.”

Too often, she said, grades take on outsized importance for students, and those who get Ds or Fs become discouraged or disengage even further, never learning the material they missed to begin with.

“Instruction is what leads to learning. Not grading. They’re separate. That’s the problem — we have a disconnect between instruction, learning and grading,” she said.

Patricia Russell is chief learning officer of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a nonprofit that advises school districts and colleges on alternatives to grades. Interest in the topic has been soaring, she said. In the three years since the group started, membership has increased from four districts to more than 400 nationwide.

For college applications, Russell’s group encourages students to submit a portfolio that includes essays, tests with high scores, videos showing oral presentations, lab projects or other items that showcase a student’s best work.

The idea is to show colleges evidence of what a student can actually do, not a teacher’s interpretation based on a limited grading scale.

“We’re talking about people who are very young, and labeling them at such an early age as ‘less than’ or ‘more than’ can have significant psychological repercussions,” Russell said. “Some things in life are zero-sum games, but learning should not be.”

Two large school improvement networks, supported by foundations, have made re-examining grading policies a priority.

Laura Schwalm, a retired superintendent of Garden Grove Unified who is now chief of staff of California Education Partners, said the aim is a grading system that puts students on track for admission to the UC and CSU, as well as trade schools.

“Graduating with a D, in career and technology courses, too, leaves students with few choices,” she said. “No one is saying water down grades. This is about giving support, not lowering standards, and looking for simple ways to make grading more fair, to give kids a fighting chance and to measure what students know with multiple opportunities to show that.”

Lynn Rocha-Salazar, a former principal in Fresno Unified who is now CORE Districts’ senior improvement coach, said the work on grading preceded Covid, but the pandemic underscored the need for it.

“Those who had not been well served were penalized the most. … So now is a time to examine grading practices to see the harm that was done,” she said.

Lindsay Unified, in rural Tulare County, has been moving toward a competency-based system for several years, and results are promising. Students at Lindsay High School, nearly all of whom are low-income and Latino, scored higher than the state average among all student groups on math and English language arts tests, as well as in college and career readiness, according to the 2019 California School Dashboard.

In Oakland, high schools are moving gradually toward a new system of assessment that doesn’t include D’s. Baez, assistant principal at Fremont High, said the change will not happen overnight. Parents, students and especially teachers need time to understand what’s expected of them, and they must “buy in” to the change, she said.

“It has to be a cultural shift at the school. You have to build trust because we’re really rebuilding an entire system,” Baez said. “It will be a lot of work, but it’s important we do this because traditional grades benefit some kids, but they don’t help everyone.”

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  1. cynthia Bragdon 3 months ago3 months ago

    I am a retired teacher with a master's degree in curriculum and Instruction. The problem with not giving grades such as an A, B, C, D or F is that is in direct contradiction of Article 7 Promotion and retention ed code 48071. Ed code 48071 (effective July 2021) describes the criteria for retention and the requirements of a school district to provide intervention for a child below grade level in reading receiving … Read More

    I am a retired teacher with a master’s degree in curriculum and Instruction. The problem with not giving grades such as an A, B, C, D or F is that is in direct contradiction of Article 7 Promotion and retention ed code 48071. Ed code 48071 (effective July 2021) describes the criteria for retention and the requirements of a school district to provide intervention for a child below grade level in reading receiving a D or F. When school districts go to more subjective grading such as the district I worked for (minimal progress, making progress, or mastery of grade level standards), it is difficult to recommend retention of a child.

    Retention and promotion are tied to the School Accountability Report Card and requirements of the Local Control Funding Formula. While there is lots of research for not retaining a child, the district has the responsibility to provide intervention for that child. School districts that use subjective grading may be saving money because the subjective grade is not demonstrating the severe deficits in reading the child is having.

    My observation as an educator is that the school district does not want to retain a child because it is recorded on CA School Dashboard. Sadly, this ed code that is meant to help struggling children in reading may not be effective due to the loop hole of school districts choosing to eliminate grades on the report card. We need to revise the ed code and or board policies at the local level to provide a criteria for what that retention would be.

  2. Amy Lewandoski 8 months ago8 months ago

    I agree that grading policies are not standardized in any way. However, I have seen what the elimination of Ds and Fs did. It did not provide an outcome that was beneficial. It resulted in an overall collapse in the school work being done because students would pass no matter what. There must be a way to show the amount of learning; I agree. Since the article offered no concrete alternative to … Read More

    I agree that grading policies are not standardized in any way. However, I have seen what the elimination of Ds and Fs did. It did not provide an outcome that was beneficial. It resulted in an overall collapse in the school work being done because students would pass no matter what.

    There must be a way to show the amount of learning; I agree. Since the article offered no concrete alternative to the current A-F grading policy I would like to say that the elimination of Ds and Fs is a terrible idea.

  3. Mark Janssen 8 months ago8 months ago

    I am going to critique this from the viewpoint of ethics. The Utilitarian Ethical Theory states that the action the helps the majority of people is the correct choice. By eliminating D and F grades, GPAs are artificially inflated which means the students going to a school like this have advantages over schools that do give out D and F grades. This is important because some colleges get more applications that they have openings. Due … Read More

    I am going to critique this from the viewpoint of ethics. The Utilitarian Ethical Theory states that the action the helps the majority of people is the correct choice. By eliminating D and F grades, GPAs are artificially inflated which means the students going to a school like this have advantages over schools that do give out D and F grades. This is important because some colleges get more applications that they have openings. Due to this, the action would be considered unethical. The Kantian Theory is about always doing the action that is honest and true. If a student fails to complete an assignment or exam to an acceptable level, they should get the grade they earned from it. Failure is a part of life and this helps them prepare for the real world.

  4. Rosalind Turner 8 months ago8 months ago

    First of all, I don't see teachers involved in these discussion about grade realignment. Grades are merely the end product of a systemic problem that has reflects a failed system. Changing grading realignment is a cosmetic and free way to pretend that education is attacking a deeper problem. Grades would change if I only interacted with less than 100 high school students every day. The fact that my job is to attempt to teach 170 … Read More

    First of all, I don’t see teachers involved in these discussion about grade realignment. Grades are merely the end product of a systemic problem that has reflects a failed system. Changing grading realignment is a cosmetic and free way to pretend that education is attacking a deeper problem. Grades would change if I only interacted with less than 100 high school students every day.

    The fact that my job is to attempt to teach 170 students everyday, many with minimal academic skills. Where homework is treated as points to be accumulated and not as skills and knowledge to be learned. When district personnel force teachers to leave the homework portal open throughout a semester there is no way to provide meaningful feedback on an assignment that is 15 weeks late. I need a student to turn in homework on time because it is tied to the lesson/skills I am trying to help that student learn. I am so tired of the reactive nature of K-12 education.

  5. Susan Dihle 8 months ago8 months ago

    I believe that it is past time that schools and systems dropped Fs. They go so very far in punishing students that their most lasting impact is to discourage far too many students from trying to improve. If we absolutely must have F grades, let them count as half of the required work. At least then, students will not be trying to overcome the burden of 0 or 5% grades on their GPAs. Among other … Read More

    I believe that it is past time that schools and systems dropped Fs. They go so very far in punishing students that their most lasting impact is to discourage far too many students from trying to improve.

    If we absolutely must have F grades, let them count as half of the required work. At least then, students will not be trying to overcome the burden of 0 or 5% grades on their GPAs. Among other things, this will give many struggling students hope that the struggle is worthwhile.

    Without this hope, far too many low-income students, most of whom have faced huge problems during the pandemic – from costly internet, to family members who speak little or no English to isolation from educators, to technical IT problems – may well give up the struggle. Given the problems they have been facing for far too long, who could possibly blame them?

  6. Brenda Lebsack 8 months ago8 months ago

    The purpose of high school is to prepare kids for adult life. Real life includes failures. Real life includes disappointment which teaches perseverance. We do kids no favor by creating a utopian “no fail” bubble that cannot be sustained in the real world.

  7. Yeah 8 months ago8 months ago

    Utterly ridiculous. Grades are a way of measuring whether or not the student has learned the material. Ds and Fs are indicators that the student needs to work harder. Remove those grades, and you remove the indications that the students are not learning. What motivation is there to learn anything at that point? The more this happens, the closer we get to simply coasting students through school whether they've learned anything or not. The job … Read More

    Utterly ridiculous. Grades are a way of measuring whether or not the student has learned the material. Ds and Fs are indicators that the student needs to work harder. Remove those grades, and you remove the indications that the students are not learning. What motivation is there to learn anything at that point? The more this happens, the closer we get to simply coasting students through school whether they’ve learned anything or not.

    The job of the school system should be to teach kids what they need to know to succeed in life, not to play games with their graduation numbers to make themselves look good.

  8. Lhfry 8 months ago8 months ago

    This article describes one more attack on accountability. Students are usually asked to come to school, to not disrupt a class, to complete homework, etc, upon all of which they will be graded. Or that used to be the case. Now some are advocating that we just hand out passing grades as if this is a response to counter “systemic racism.” When you hold someone accountable, apply a grade based … Read More

    This article describes one more attack on accountability. Students are usually asked to come to school, to not disrupt a class, to complete homework, etc, upon all of which they will be graded. Or that used to be the case. Now some are advocating that we just hand out passing grades as if this is a response to counter “systemic racism.”

    When you hold someone accountable, apply a grade based on meeting certain requirements, you are showing respect for said person. Clearly the advocates of “mastery learning” or whatever they call it to hide what it really means, do not respect the people of color whom they imagine to benefit from these policies. Here is your real “systemic racism.”

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 8 months ago8 months ago

      Thanks for your comment, Lhfry.

      I encourage you and other readers to learn more about the issue by attending our roundtable on Wednesday at 4 pm. You can find more details about the event and register here.

  9. Paul Muench 8 months ago8 months ago

    I really like the idea behind this policy and agree with Ms. Baez that it points to an entire system change. But I would say that the grade for mastery is an A. If a student doesn’t need to get an A then why should he take the class. Perhaps he needs a different version of the class. Plus if mastery is what matters why make all children learn at the … Read More

    I really like the idea behind this policy and agree with Ms. Baez that it points to an entire system change.
    But I would say that the grade for mastery is an A. If a student doesn’t need to get an A then why should he take the class. Perhaps he needs a different version of the class. Plus if mastery is what matters why make all children learn at the same speed, get rid of grade levels. When all students are getting A’s we’ll need open access education for UC and CSU for all students that have mastered the learning path for their desired major. As other commenters have pointed out the challenge is the integrity of the A, but to have a public education system at all we have to believe we can make the meaning of an A have integrity. Of course we have to overcome the doubts we can actually make this new system work and afford it. But I see this policy as one small step in a much bigger and better journey.

  10. Randall Vail 8 months ago8 months ago

    Failing is always an option, no matter what your grade is.
    Keep that option open – show it, fear it, avoid it…

  11. Joanne Jacobs 8 months ago8 months ago

    What if a student doesn't achieve mastery as measured by tests, assignments, oral reports, essays or any other measure? More time to show mastery doesn't help: The student is nowhere near mastery. Do schools fail these students? Lower standards so "mastery" is the equivalent of "has a pulse?" (See online credit recovery.) Read More

    What if a student doesn’t achieve mastery as measured by tests, assignments, oral reports, essays or any other measure? More time to show mastery doesn’t help: The student is nowhere near mastery. Do schools fail these students? Lower standards so “mastery” is the equivalent of “has a pulse?” (See online credit recovery.)

  12. Robert Borneman 8 months ago8 months ago

    In 30 years of teaching I have actually never met one single teacher who stupidly forces students' grades into a bell-curve distribution. Not one. I've met teachers who have their own standards and expect students to meet them. I've also met teachers who take the highest, or second highest grade (throwing out outliers) and create a percentage based grade scale using the high grade as 100%. I've met teachers who scrupulously go through their test … Read More

    In 30 years of teaching I have actually never met one single teacher who stupidly forces students’ grades into a bell-curve distribution. Not one. I’ve met teachers who have their own standards and expect students to meet them. I’ve also met teachers who take the highest, or second highest grade (throwing out outliers) and create a percentage based grade scale using the high grade as 100%. I’ve met teachers who scrupulously go through their test questions and throw out poor ones. It’s odd that this article references teachers who grade on a curve – I’m sure they exist, but they are a very rare breed in public K-12 education.

  13. Chris Stampolis 8 months ago8 months ago

    Please EdSource I continue to beg you to have your journalists personally ask each UC Regent and each CSU Trustee how their University admissions officers will choose who gets into each campus and who does not get into each campus, as your own research concludes that high school grades often are subjective. Without an objective exam or standard that applies to all students, how to ensure that wealthy students do not abuse the grading system … Read More

    Please EdSource I continue to beg you to have your journalists personally ask each UC Regent and each CSU Trustee how their University admissions officers will choose who gets into each campus and who does not get into each campus, as your own research concludes that high school grades often are subjective. Without an objective exam or standard that applies to all students, how to ensure that wealthy students do not abuse the grading system by gaining access to more “plus 1 GPA point” courses and by enrolling/harvesting points at grade inflation schools.

    I continue to assert that removing the SAT and ACT will result in harm to academically-strong students of color who now have to compete unevenly against wealthy kids who will benefit from subjective grading. Please, EdSource, let the public know which Regents and Trustees will speak with you about this issue and who refuses to be held accountable on the journalistic record.

  14. Marilyn Cachola 8 months ago8 months ago

    I remember halfway through the pandemic when forward and innovative voices in education and schooling spoke of a time for disruption - that when we went 'back to school' that it would look vastly different and have a wider spectrum of blended and flipped learning models, UDL everywhere, and moving away from the agrarian schedule and campus-based, full-day based schooling. Sigh. What is that saying? Every system is exactly designed to achieve its outcomes. Want … Read More

    I remember halfway through the pandemic when forward and innovative voices in education and schooling spoke of a time for disruption – that when we went ‘back to school’ that it would look vastly different and have a wider spectrum of blended and flipped learning models, UDL everywhere, and moving away from the agrarian schedule and campus-based, full-day based schooling. Sigh. What is that saying? Every system is exactly designed to achieve its outcomes. Want different outcomes, change the system.

  15. el 8 months ago8 months ago

    Rather than "lowering standards" - I see it as the exact opposite. Insisting that students show mastery and giving them more opportunities to do so. Imagine you're taking a class where the midterm is 30% of your grade. You've misunderstood a concept, or you're having a terrible day, or you just ran out of time, and you get a 30%. The best grade you can get in this class, now, if you are completely perfect, is … Read More

    Rather than “lowering standards” – I see it as the exact opposite. Insisting that students show mastery and giving them more opportunities to do so.

    Imagine you’re taking a class where the midterm is 30% of your grade. You’ve misunderstood a concept, or you’re having a terrible day, or you just ran out of time, and you get a 30%. The best grade you can get in this class, now, if you are completely perfect, is an 80, and if you can’t be perfect, it may not be mathematically possible to even pass the class.

    The smart money is just on giving up, then. Why bother with the class if you can’t pass it? Or, maybe you do manage to be perfect in the rest of the class, and you get 100% on the comprehensive final. Is B- really the right grade?

    What if instead, for the student who failed the midterm, they could replace that grade with an oral presentation on a concept important to the course? Would that be a lowered standard? What if the students who are struggling with their grades had alternate assignments that were maybe different in direction but still very challenging, to show that they have gone back and relearned that material and now mastered it? Why shouldn’t we make this an option for every student in every class?

    Maybe that history student is writing C level essays, but our goal isn’t to permanently label that student but instead improve their knowledge and writing. So what if you gave that student the opportunity to get an A by writing replacement essays, thus having to think deeply about more topics, and giving them the chance to improve their skills with more practice?

    How can your grading rubric support students taking responsibility for their mastery, instead of letting them off the hook with, “oh well, that deadline passed?”

    An e-learning coordinator at a major university told me they’d done an experiment with some different sections of a class. One section had two attempts allowed for every quiz, and were shown the answers after the first quiz. The second only took each quiz once. They both took the same final exam. Students in the first section, who got the practice of filling in the correct answers on a quiz, significantly outscored students in the second.

  16. Jeff. Thomas 8 months ago8 months ago

    No need to worry about your grades; now everyone gets a trophy.

  17. Ron Hoyt 8 months ago8 months ago

    Hmm, sounds like you’re watering down the grades. I understand the systemic issues with a standardized entrance test in that all students aren’t given the same opportunities; however, it does demonstrate preparedness . The key is finding ways to increase preparedness not pretend it doesn’t exist.