From top left: Boardmember Kate Ford, Boardmember Wendy Sims-Moten, Boardmember Rose Muñoz, Assistant Superintendent of Elementary Education Raul Ramirez, Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Education Shawn Carey, Public Information Officer Camie Barnwell, Superintendent Cary Matsuoka, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Frann Wageneck, Boardmember Jackie Reid (due to a power outage she communicated through Executive Assistant Sandra Trujilio's phone), Chief Educational Technology Officer Todd Ryckman, and Board President Laura Capps during a virtual Zoom board metting on Thursday, April 23, 2020.

The issue of grading students during the COVID-19 pandemic is a complex, equity-driven one. After weeks of wrestling with every imperfect option, the school board voted unanimously Thursday to allow high school students in the Santa Barbara Unified School District the option to receive a credit/no credit grade or a traditional letter grade for the spring 2020 semester.

“I must say I struggled with this,” said Boardmember Wendy Sims-Moten. “When it first came up, I really went out and researched and talked to friends who were counselors and who were teachers and students because I really wanted to have a well-rounded view as we came to this challenging decision.”

She said that originally she was more compelled to vote for the credit/no credit–only option that doesn’t allow for letter grades because of the inequities among families in the district. While some students may have access to a better home-learning environment, others may be less prepared to achieve high grades, forcing them to take a credit grade rather than an ‘A’ they could have otherwise earned before the pandemic began.

But she also considered the “invisible pressure” that students who are better positioned to learn from home face, too. 

“Sometimes our high-achieving students have a lot of pressure on them that may not be the obvious, like someone living in a crowded home, but the pressures are there,” Sims-Moten said. “Our team brought this proposal that doesn’t take it out into the universe and really asks how can we find some type of compromise.”

Parents, students, and teachers would have packed the school board room like a can of sardines Thursday if it weren’t for the pandemic keeping them inside their homes. Held remotely over Zoom instead, more than 120 people virtually attended the meeting to witness the board’s decision on the emotionally charged topic. Twenty-four spoke during public comment on the issue.

“As of about 7 p.m., there are over 1,100 people who have signed our petition to adopt this policy [the option to choose],” said public commenter Marsha Harrington, a mother of a Dos Pueblos sophomore. ”I think our high-achieving students who have worked hard for their letter grade and are managing through this disruption should be able to keep their grade and those suffering will not be penalized,” she continued.

The majority of the public comments were in favor of the proposal district staff released Wednesday that allows for the option. It assesses student work as of March 13, the last day before schools closed. Any student work evaluated after that date can only improve students’ grades but cannot harm them. 

“For me, if this was a decision between credit/no credit and grading during quarantine, it would be no question,” said Board President Laura Capps. “I do not support grading during quarantine. That is just not fair given all the scenarios that have been raised … of all the ways this pandemic has exacerbated all of the inequities that are inherent in our education system. 

“But I believe that March 13 is a really key date in which every student had the opportunity to be in the classroom for more than two months of the semester in addition to having this be the second semester of the year; I do believe it’s a fair benchmark,” she explained.

And though more than 1,000 have signed the aforementioned petition and most of the commenters and boardmembers agreed with that logic, the voice of those on the other side is irrefutable. All 20 of the counselors working in the district signed a letter pleading that the board vote against the district’s proposal and not allow letter grades. 

“Every ethnicity and socioeconomic class is under incredible stress, and we should support credit/no credit as a way to stay sane,” the letter reads. “Even students who have no barriers to access are losing motivation and breaking down.”

All public universities in the state have committed to allowing credit/no credit transcripts for high school applicants. The counselors’ letter also points out that this semester has been called the “asterisk semester” by some institutions because of the vast differences in grading policies across the country, and that kids won’t be barred from colleges for not having letter grades. 

Some teachers in the district also spoke out against letter grades. Aaron Solis, a teacher at San Marcos High School, brought up a less-acknowledged downside to the proposal.

“As it is written right now, a student who has an ‘A’ on March 13 will have that ‘A,’ and the grade cannot be lowered. So that student can basically do nothing, show up to the Zoom session, and say hi and leave without turning in any work,” Solis said. “The student who has a ‘C’ and wants to raise their grade would have to do all this work and put in all this effort to raise the grade.”

Rose Muñoz was the only boardmember who appeared to be completely against the proposal, despite her ultimately joining the other four boardmembers and voting in favor of it. 

“I am concerned about the limited resources so many families have,” Muñoz said. “I’ve talked to and heard from parents that have two or three children at home, limited or no Wi-Fi, and are trying to get familiar with how to keep up with their children’s lessons when they have not sent an email before in their life. And then have language barriers on top of that.

“There are parents that at this time of night are not on this call because they’re working one or two jobs,” she continued.

Under the newly adopted proposal, elementary schools will not issue report cards for Trimester 3 (June 2020) and instead give feedback for students and families. Middle schools will only allow credit/no credit, as those grades don’t carry into high school.

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