Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times, November 8, 2021
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.
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.
Several school districts across California, reflecting a diversity of demographics, are taking steps toward revising grading with an eye toward equity. Some have formally adopted new policies while others are offering training and support for teachers who want to grade differently.
Last year, West Contra Costa Unified, which is majority Latino, issued a memo encouraging secondary teachers to give students a five-day grace period to turn in work and eliminate zeroes in grade books.
Placer Union High School District, where a majority of students are white, has directed teachers to base grades on “valid evidence of a student’s content knowledge and not…on evidence that is likely to be influenced by a teacher’s implicit bias nor reflect a student’s circumstances.”
A recent L.A. Times analysis of L.A. Unified’s assessment and grade data showed how grades fell significantly during school closures for students in Los Angeles. The gap in grades that existed before the pandemic between Black and Latino students and white and Asian counterparts widened to as much as 21 percentage points.
There were also significant gaps in the rate of students meeting University of California and California State University admissions requirements, which say students must complete certain courses with a C or better. During the 2018-19 school year, about 59% of students met the requirements. For the class of 2022, about 46% of students are on track to meet the requirements — with a gap of 17 percentage points or more between Black and Latino students and white and Asian students. Officials have said they expect more seniors will meet the requirements before the end of the school year.
Despite the broad decline in grades, educators said the pandemic also showed how giving students extra opportunities led many to improve their marks. In the fall of the 2020-21 school year, after the district directed teachers to give students several extra weeks to make up their work, almost 15,000 grades were improved.
In the recent guidance, teachers were directed to base final academic grades on the “level of learning demonstrated in the quality of work, not the quantity of work completed” and mastery of standards.
“Just because I did not answer a test question correctly today doesn’t mean I don’t have the capacity to learn it tomorrow and retake a test,” Yoshimoto-Towery said. “Equitable grading practices align with the understanding that as people we learn at different rates and in different ways and we need multiple opportunities to do so.”
The district’s guidance says academic grades should not be based on attendance, including unexcused absences, late work, engagement or behavior, which can be reflected in separate “citizenship” or “work habits” marks that do not count toward a student’s GPA.
Students earning Ds and Fs should also have the opportunity to take an incomplete grade in order to have extra time to improve their grade or retake the course for a better grade or credit recovery.