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Students from Madison High School move their tassels as they officially graduate during a ceremony at Petco Park. / Pool photo by Eduardo Contreras, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Almost nothing about the 2020-21 school year was easy. But for many seniors throughout San Diego County, earning a high school diploma did get slightly easier during the pandemic – academically, at least.

Some school districts, like Poway Unified and Grossmont Union, didn’t change their graduation requirements at all. But others, including the two largest in San Diego County – San Diego Unified and Sweetwater Union – relaxed their standards for graduating high school.

San Diego Unified, for instance, lowered its minimum GPA requirement and in some cases lowered the number of credits required to graduate.

Easing graduation standards fits into a broader push across the state to treat students with grace during the pandemic. A bill recently signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom, for instance, offers a range of options: from allowing high school students to change their grades to credit/no credit to attending a fifth year of high school and giving students who struggled the right to re-do the school year. Districts also came up with their own solutions, including “hold harmless” grading policies.

“It’s a wise approach,” said Pedro Noguera, dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education. “We shouldn’t pretend these are normal times. Doing what you can to support kids and to not allow them to become too discouraged is essential.”

Collin McGlashen, a spokesman for Grossmont, said that instead of lowering graduation standards, the district increased the level of support it provided to students in the form of tutoring, Saturday school and winter learning sessions.

“We learned early on that maintaining accountability, while providing all of those supports at the same time, was important for keeping students engaged,” McGlashen wrote in an email.

Noguera also validated that approach. Finding ways to strengthen the relationship between teachers and their students to keep them engaged would have had a bigger impact than policy decisions, he said.

San Diego Unified took several steps to make it easier for students to graduate. First, it allowed students to have a certain amount of credits, normally required to graduate, waived. And it also lowered its minimum GPA requirement from 2.0 to 1.75.

“There wasn’t a wholesale lowering of standards,” said Richard Barrera, president of the San Diego Unified school board.

The policy wasn’t designed for students who checked out entirely, Barrera said, but rather students who might have failed one or two classes that were particularly difficult for them to complete online.

Lowering the GPA requirement does help students who may have taken a pronounced hit to their GPA during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it also helps students who consistently maintained a 1.75 GPA – the equivalent of a “C-” – throughout all four years of high school.

San Diego Unified has a higher graduation standard than the state of California. In both cases where the district lowered its standards, it lowered them to meet California’s minimum requirement.

California, for instance, requires fewer class credits for graduation than San Diego Unified, according to a district document that explains the relaxed standards. If a senior didn’t finish a course, and was either issued a No Grade or an Incomplete, then the credits might be waived from the student’s requirements, as long as the student still met the state standard.

The state has no minimum GPA requirement.

Poway and Grossmont also require higher standards than the state for a student to graduate, but chose not to change their standards.

A spokeswoman for Sweetwater noted that the district did relax its graduation standards, but was not immediately able to explain exactly how the standards were altered.

The only modification Poway made for its graduating seniors was to allow them to walk in graduation ceremonies, regardless of whether they met the requirements for graduation, said district spokeswoman Christine Paik.

Those students, however, did not receive diplomas, Paik said.

San Diego Unified also has another grading change in the works, unrelated to the pandemic.

Next school year, it will allow students to erase failing grades from their first semester, if they manage to receive a “D” or higher in the second semester, Barrera said.

That change is consistent with the district’s philosophy that students should be allowed to achieve mastery over time, said Barrera. In other words, if a student comes to have a passable understanding of a subject, which he or she did not understand initially, that student should still pass the course.

The district is still waiting on approval from the UC system to change the policy for some of its UC required courses, Barrera said.

For Noguera, the USC professor, it’s important that people not forget about the class of 2021. Fewer of those students are enrolling in community colleges, he said, and it’s entirely possible that large chunks of young people may be out of work and not in school.

“Those kids are going to be in a very tough place,” he said. “Many of them may not continue to pursue their education, so they’ll have long-term consequences on their ability to get good jobs and support themselves. We have good reason to be concerned about them in the long term.”

Will Huntsberry

Will Huntsberry is a senior investigative reporter at Voice of San Diego.

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