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California: Big Districts Dropping Traditional Grading System

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The Los Angeles Times reports that the public schools of Los Angeles and San Diego are changing the way students are graded. Critics will undoubtedly claim that this is a lowering of standards and a dumbing down of expectations, but the explanation sounds reasonable.

The article began:

A few years ago, high school teacher Joshua Moreno got fed up with his grading system, which had become a points game.

Some students accumulated so many points early on that by the end of the term they knew they didn’t need to do more work and could still get an A. Others — often those who had to work or care for family members after school — would fail to turn in their homework and fall so far behind that they would just stop trying.

“It was literally inequitable,” he said. “As a teacher you get frustrated because what you signed up for was for students to learn. And it just ended up being a conversation about points all the time.”

These days, the Alhambra High School English teacher has done away with points entirely. He no longer gives students homework and gives them multiple opportunities to improve essays and classwork. The goal is to base grades on what students are learning, and remove behavior, deadlines and how much work they do from the equation.

The changes Moreno embraced are part of a growing trend in which educators are moving away from traditional point-driven grading systems, aiming to close large academic gaps among racial, ethnic and economic groups. The trend was accelerated by the pandemic and school closures that caused troubling increases in Ds and Fs across the country and by calls to examine the role of institutionalized racism in schools in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd by a police officer.

Los Angeles and San Diego Unified — the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined — have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines. The policies encourage teachers to give students opportunities to revise essays or retake tests to show that they have met learning goals, rather than enforcing hard deadlines. 

“It’s teaching students that failure is a part of learning. We fall. We get back up. We learn from the feedback that we get,” said Alison Yoshimoto-Towery, L.A. Unified’s chief academic officer.

Traditional grading has often been used to “justify and to provide unequal educational opportunities based on a student’s race or class,” said a letter sent by Yoshimoto-Towery and Pedro A. Garcia, senior executive director of the division of instruction, to principals last month. 

“By continuing to use century-old grading practices, we inadvertently perpetuate achievement and opportunity gaps, rewarding our most privileged students and punishing those who are not,” their letter said, quoting educational grading consultant Joe Feldman….

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