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MVLA drops letter grades, moves to credit/no-credit for this semester

School Empty
Town Crier File Photo
Los Altos High School sits empty after the campus was closed for the year amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Local high schoolers won’t be receiving letter grades for this semester, the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District Board of Trustees decided Monday.

The board voted 4-1 to implement a credit/no-credit policy, in place of letter grades, capping off a roughly three-hour special meeting that included substantial public comment and debate.

Trustee Phil Faillace voted against the resolution, saying he favored a system where students could pick between credit/no-credit and receiving letter grades.

Superintendent Nellie Meyer recommended the switch to credit/no-credit. Teacher’s union president David Campbell also spoke in favor of the change.

Under the credit/no-credit system, students’ grade point averages won’t be impacted by their performance this semester, and those who don’t earn credit for a course will be enrolled in summer school to make it up.

Parents push back

Parents who spoke during the meeting were overwhelmingly opposed to switching away from letter grades. Some argued it would lead to decreased motivation and disadvantage students who were looking to improve in the second semester.

“They understand letter grading; it motivates them,” Laura Teksler said. “They know how they’re doing and when you take that away, they’re a little bit at a loss and they do lose motivation.”

It is important to maintain a sense of normalcy for students, Teksler said, adding that taking away grades would lead to more upheaval.

Meyer said it was important to allow students whose lives have been interrupted by the pandemic to be able to complete the year without impacting their GPA.

“This option makes sense because our new distance learning plan is an ongoing design that was created in reaction to the global pandemic and lacks necessary teaching training,” she said. “It lacks reviewed rubrics and assessments for grading via distance learning, in many instances lacks proper equipment for student and staff.”

There are also problems proctoring tests online, and certain classes, such as performing arts and physical education, are hard to accurately assess without teacher observation, Meyer said.

The Palo Alto Unified School District announced last month that it was switching to credit/no-credit system. The UC and CSU systems have agreed to accept credit/no-credit in lieu of letter grades.

“I find it extremely disingenuous of colleges to say that they’re not going to harm students who come from a school with a credit/no-credit system,” Faillace said. “They are going to be looking at grades from other places.”

Even if second-semester grades were entirely disregarded, Faillace said students who showed significant improvement in the latter half of the year would be harmed.

Equity problems

Campbell, the union president, said the credit/no-credit system would benefit both students and staff by allowing the focus to be on student success, rather than minutia of grading. He also raised potential equity problems with issuing grades, noting that some students don’t have stable Wi-Fi, a reliable computer, consistent access to food and a quiet space to learn.

Los Altos High teacher Arantxa Arriada said she has students who have four people sleeping on the living room floor at home and who are responsible for supervising younger siblings. There are also students who have taken jobs at Safeway during the pandemic because their families need money to pay the bills, she added.

“We’re talking about this issue as if there’s not a global pandemic going on,” Arriada said. “We are going to have people – students, families – who are severely impacted by this and we can’t just have business as usual during a global pandemic.”

Some parents suggested trying alternative solutions, rather than going to a blanket credit/no-credit system. When Carl Theobald’s daughter, a junior at Los Altos High, heard about the potential move to credit/no-credit, she was “devastated” and in tears, Theobald said.

“While I understand that some students may be disadvantaged in the learn-at-home environment, it just would not be fair for students who have worked hard to take away recognition that they have earned and deserve,” he said.

Proposed alternatives

Faillace said he wanted to give students choice, allowing them to pick between credit/no-credit and receiving a letter grade. At the very least, he said students should be able to use their grades from third quarter, which was concluded before schools closed last month. If teachers are able to implement meaningful letter grades for the semester, Faillace supported allowing students to choose that as well.

In reaching out to college admissions offices, Meyer said she learned that they “frown upon” a hybrid approach and want districts to have a uniform system.

“Admissions offices are sharing with us that if we give students the ability to look at their grade and then change it, or to drop it to credit/no-credit if they’re not succeeding, that that is an uneven playing field,” Meyer said.

Teacher Robert Barker also raised questions about the reliability of grades, saying that there are likely to be discrepancies in how teachers grade students, especially given the lost time in switching to online learning.

“I think it’s going to create chaos,” Barker said. “I think it’s going to create discrepancies in how students are graded, and I think there’s going to be a lot of unintended effects.”

However, parents questioned why the district has had trouble quickly adapting to online learning when private schools have rapidly made the switch. Parent Leslie Desaeyere said private schools have moved classes to Zoom and are maintaining a normal schedule, with students going through their various periods each day.

“Everybody else is moving along and our district seems to be at a standstill,” Desaeyere said.

Some parents told trustees they were considering moving their children out of the district and into private schools if letter grades are abandoned. The parent of a sophomore at Los Altos High, Kira Sasaki, said her family is considering moving to an online school as early as next week.

“I’ve been speaking to other friends about that,” Sasaki said. “A lot of people are considering that as an option.”

In response to the board’s decision, more than 600 people, as of Wednesday morning, have signed a petition on change.org urging the board to allow students to receive letter grades.

Update: This story was last updated at 10:30 a.m. April 8.

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