Boardmember Laura Capps | Credit: Paul Wellman (file)

After reporting a major increase in students receiving Ds and Fs during the pandemic, the Santa Barbara Unified School District considered getting rid of them entirely on Tuesday.

The proposal — which aims to adapt to the pandemic learning changes and protect students from the inevitable inequities caused by it — only gives letter grades A-C. If students don’t make a C grade or better, they are either given an “incomplete” or a “no credit.” 

“Grades are not the only measure of student success; they are also, however, an important gatekeeper of student access to future learning,” said Shawn Carey, assistant superintendent of secondary education. “The grading policy has to honor the rigor of an instructional program and ensuring we are holding students harmless, especially from what’s out of their control.”

If the policy were implemented, students who receive an incomplete would be assigned a learning task to make up for it and, if completed by June 2, they could turn it into a C or better. Students who earn a no credit would have to produce documentation of consultation between the parent and teacher to create a plan of recovering learning. The board only discussed the policy today and will vote on it January 12.

“I think the grading policy as it stands, while it’s well intended, is missing that piece where we need to look at what is behind that child getting a D or an F,” said Karen McBride, president of the Santa Barbara Teachers Association. “What are we going to do about it besides just giving them more time? That doesn’t address the root causes.” 

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McBride was joined by a couple of teachers and a parent who pleaded with the board to reconsider the policy, agreeing that it doesn’t solve the root issue and worrying that it places too much burden on the teachers to get incomplete students to pass. Some also worried that the timing was too soon — effective January 12 — and that once again, there was not enough transparency and teachers didn’t have “a seat at the table” when it came to changing the grading policy.

The change comes after the district reported in December that over a quarter of junior high and high school students in Santa Barbara Unified received at least one D or F on their most recent report cards this year, and 10 percent of them have three or more Ds and Fs. 

And it doesn’t just stop at the junior high and high school level. In elementary, about a third of students earned a score of one or two in reading, writing and/or math on their most recent report cards (out of five). That is a 10 percent increase compared to past years. The elementary grading system does not have proposed changes like secondary grades, but it requires more intervention opportunities before issuing a one or a two.

The board members, though all appreciated the compassionate reasoning behind the proposed policy, were not completely on board with it. 

“When you just read this at face value, the interventions that are needed — the teachers bear all the brunt of it. If you could please come back to use with more concrete answers,” Boardmember Laura Capps said to district staff. 

Boardmember Virginia Alvarez had a solution of her own to Capps’s comment. 

“What’s the common interest?” Alvarez asked. “We all want the students to do well. Is there a third choice we haven’t thought about? Perhaps we can still give the students additional time, but we take the burden off of the teachers because they’re already moving forward to their new classes and new students. Perhaps we can devote some funding so we can have a teacher on special assignment at each school who supports the students.”

Superintendent Hilda Maldonado later responded that that could work on a school-by-school basis, though it couldn’t be applied across the entire district. Alvarez wanted to see a policy that helps to solve the issues students face that cause their Ds and Fs in the first place.

“I’d like to hear more about the interventions that are in place,” Alvarez said. “I’d like to hear about the root causes.”

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