New York City public schools aren’t the only ones getting lambasted over so-called “lax” standards. California school districts are being accused of coddling students after eliminating “D” and “F” grades in an attempt to reengage pupils amid floundering test scores during the pandemic.
“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,” Nidya Baez, assistant principal at Fremont High in Oakland, told Bay City News of the new measure, which has been dubbed “mastery” or “competency-based” learning.
In accordance, Los Angeles, Santa Ana, Oakland Unified, Sacramento City Unified and other California districts are gradually phasing out sub-“C” marks for high school students. Meanwhile, pupils who flunk exams or fail to complete their homework are offered extensions or the ability to retake the rest.
And if students neglect to complete aforementioned assignments by the end of semester, they earn an “incomplete” rather than failing letter grades.
“What mastery learning does is really allow students every opportunity to show that they know the material and if they don’t know the material, to get the support they need to be able to demonstrate it,” explained Steven Kellner with California Education Partners.
Baez added, “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.”
Advocates see the new grading policy as especially vital given that grades plummeted during virtual learning that took place over the pandemic, particularly among black, hispanic and low-income students. They also hope it will allow young scholars to absorb the coursework sans getting disqualified from being admitted to the University of California and other state schools over a sub-par mark.
Nonetheless, many local educators were not too fond of the competency-based learning initiative, which they suggested prioritized feelings over academic success.
“I will never lie about [students’] knowledge level,” said Debora Rinehart, a math and science teacher at St. Theresa School, a Catholic school in Oakland. “Not reporting ‘D’s and ‘F’s is the equivalent of lying about a student’s progress.”
She added that ditching “D” and “F” grades doesn’t guarantee that pupils will learn the material, and could even result in grade inflation.
The controversial grading standards also split social media.
“This generation needs to learn lessons in life, which are consequences to their actions,” fumed one traditionalist Twitter critic of the Harrison Bergeron-esque initiative. “You don’t study or pay attention in class, you fail that’s simple. None of this coddling BS!”
Another dubbed the new mastery learning standards “participation trophies for education.”
“This just shows how bubble-wrapped the new generation is,” scoffed one detractor. “Failure is a part of life.”
However, others lauded the policy, with one fan saying “School should be a tool to create successful kids not failures … a failed child needs more work not a failure grade.”
“I don’t understand the ‘let them fail, that will teach em’ argument,” argued another supporter. “The majority of kids are not failing because of lack of effort, it’s lack of understanding.”
They added, “No amount of failing is going to make them learn it, ‘do over’ means the teacher maybe changes delivery & child learns.”
Meanwhile, some alternative education professionals worried that the old-school grading system might impact students’ self-esteem.
“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,” said Patricia Russell, who runs the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a nonprofit that advises school districts and colleges on alternatives to grades. “Some things in life are zero-sum games, but learning should not be.”
The measure comes several months after the University of California agreed to no longer consider SAT or ACT scores when making admissions and scholarship decisions. The deal was part of a settlement finalized Friday in a 2019 lawsuit filed on behalf of low-income students of color and students with disabilities.
Controversial education initiatives aren’t limited to the West Coast. This past October, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio came under fire from parents after proposing a plan to axe the public school system’s Gifted and Talented program as it disproportionately favored white and Asian students.
“I am really angry that the mayor who has been in charge of our education for the last eight years uses his last days as mayor to make this very radical change to our public education,” said Yiatin Chu, co-founder of education New York advocacy group Parent Leaders for Accelerated Curriculum and Education (PLACE), whose oldest child attended a gifted and talented program.
Others felt Hizzoner’s proposal torpedoed low-income students’ means of escaping oft-struggling city school districts.