Illustration by Adriana Heldiz

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Imagine a student has two equally important math tests in a semester, no retakes. They score 20 on the first and 90 on the second. The student has clearly improved. They’ve arguably demonstrated mastery. But they will still fail with an average score of 55.  

A simple averaging of scores is so commonplace it feels like a fixed law of nature. But increasingly, experts and teachers agree it’s not just an unfair way to grade; it’s also inaccurate. If scores are meant to measure mastery, they should take into account how much a student improves while learning a new subject, the thinking goes.  

That was San Diego Unified’s logic when it reformed its own grading policy in Oct. 2020. But building consensus around exactly what a new grading policy should look like is where the process can get sticky. Getting rid of 0’s is one idea – D’s and F’s another. Some favor mandatory retakes. Others believe homework shouldn’t be graded. Scraping the simple average, though, is at the heart of most ideas around grading reform.  

“The way that you improve grading is to say, ‘I don’t care if you failed three months ago. It’s how you finish the race, not how you start.’ Get rid of the average! If you’ll do that one thing, you’ll have a lower failure rate,” said Douglas Reaves, an education consultant and author, at a recent EdSource roundtable on the future of grading. “You will save a generation of kids.” 

Making sure more people succeed in school means fewer people unemployed, fewer people in poverty and fewer people in jail, Reaves said.  

Grade reform advocates have argued for years the system should be changed. But the pandemic – and its corresponding increase in D’s and F’s – has pushed districts to take reform more seriously. Several large districts, including Los Angeles Unified and Oakland Unified, have considered eliminating D’s and F’s entirely in favor of “incomplete” grades.  

Getting rid of D’s and F’s is controversial.  

“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,” one teacher told EdSource. “Not reporting Ds and Fs is the equivalent of lying about a student’s progress.” 

What appears to be slightly less controversial among educators is the idea that students should be graded on their mastery of subject matter, rather than their compliance.  

Take, for instance, late assignments. Many teachers deduct points from students who are tardy turning in projects. But whether a student is tardy, doesn’t have anything to do with whether they know algebra. The opposite approach to deducting points for late assignments is allowing students to retake tests or resubmit assignments. Teachers across California already use both methods – a right enshrined in state Education Code, which gives teachers the discretion to set their own grades, regardless of district policy.  

Still, district and school policies matter. Pressure from principals and superintendents pushes teachers to change their practices. And many leaders say that reforming grading policies is central to the work of eliminating racial bias.  

Take again the example of a late assignment. Students living in poverty, who are more often students of color, are more likely to take care of brothers and sisters or older relatives. This can get in the way of school assignments. And in extreme instances, with homeless students for example, the instability they experience may prevent them from completing assignments. 

Not penalizing those students for turning in late assignments begins to chip away at school policies, which, perhaps unintentionally, are biased against some students.   

Some bias slips out in school policies. Other bias happens on an even more subjective level.  

“Anyone who has ever been to school knows your relationship to a teacher can often be reflected in your grade,” said Richard Barrera, San Diego Unified board president. 

Barrera said that San Diego Unified is moving toward mastery-based, rather than compliance-based, grading to begin to eliminate that bias as much as possible.  

The district is still in the process of moving its high schools and middle schools into a mastery-based system. And it’s still unclear exactly how grades will look once the process is complete.  

A district webpage explains that San Diego Unified students will eventually be graded on a 1 – 4 point scale. A “4” means a student “exceeds standards.” A “1” means they are showing small signs of progress. Students can also score an “unsatisfactory” on this scale, which indicates “little to no progress.”  

The traditional 0 – 100 scale means that 0’s carry more weight toward failing, than 100’s carry toward passing, since 70 is the cutoff.  

San Diego Unified’s eventual system might mean than an “A” aligns with 80 – 100, and an “F” or “unsatisfactory” aligns with 0 – 20.  

Lindsay Unified, a relatively small district in the Central Valley, moved to a mastery-based grading system in 2010. For district leaders it meant upending the system entirely. They didn’t just move to a 1 – 4 grading scale; they eliminated actual grade levels. Students were no longer placed in 6th of 7th grade. Instead, were assigned classes and projects based on what they knew, rather grade level.  

The district’s graduation rate has improved significantly under the new program.  

“I am not going to lie; it is a lot of work. It is hard work,” said Guadalupe Alvarez-Smith, curriculum and instruction specialist for the district, at EdSource’s roundtable. “We do what we do because we love the outcomes… It is hard work, but we are willing to put that work in to do what is needed.”  

Will Huntsberry

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

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1 Comment

  1. You’re also lowering standards for people who have the potential to be great. So yeah, get more people employed at mediocre jobs, but absolutely zero truly amazing scientists, doctors, inventors and Nobel prize winners.

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