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LA Public Schools Change The Grading Paradigm: LEARNING is Constant and TIME is the Variable

December 21, 2020

For decades schools have operated on the premise that TIME is constant and LEARNING is variable, and since I began writing this blog I’ve promoted the opposite. I was, therefore, heartened to read that LAUSD, the second largest school district in the nation, is going to institute a “No Fail” policy this year that eliminates “F”s and instead will offer students the opportunity to re-take courses with no penalty.

As Howard Blume writes, this shift was a not a consequence of a change in thinking about the way schools are organized; it was a response to the practical reality that many LAUSD students were failing due to circumstances beyond their control: 

Given the limitations of distance learning, “failing kids is sending the wrong message and further increasing their chances of being pushed out of school,” Roldan said. “This is not the time to castigate students when their families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.”…

…The new L.A. Unified policy grew out of district concerns about the rise in D and F grades, a pattern mirrored across the country in school systems that have closed campuses and relied on distance-only learning. Among the problems faced by students is inconsistent or inadequate internet access and a poor learning environment at home.

It is noteworthy that “inconsistent or inadequate internet access and a poor learning environment” are NOT the only problems that challenge students who are raised in poverty… they ARE, however, the only problems that are clearly manifesting as a result of the pandemic and, since they are the one problems clearly linked to remote learning, the rationale for this change in thinking about grading. From my perspective, ANY change that results from an awareness that children raised in poverty have far greater challenges to overcome than children raised in affluence is a positive change, for it emphasizes the adversity that too many children face and the advantages that too many parents take for granted. 

Unsurprisingly this shift in thinking was not universally applauded. Mr. Blume gleaned two quotes that offer a point-counterpoint analysis: 

“Yes, it’s COVID time,” the teacher said. “But this soft bigotry of low expectations — including us being banned from demanding students ever comment with their voices or actually show themselves on camera during Zoom — will indeed help our low-income students stay on the bottom of the pile of learning.”

A high school principal from a different campus was more supportive. Given the unprecedented crisis, the principal said, students who earn A’s and B’s should get to keep them but that the only other grade handed out should be a pass. This principal — who also was not authorized to comment — requested anonymity.

But here’s what I find to be problematic. This change is not grounded in the need to shift away from the “sorting and selecting” that underlies our traditional grading system to a mastery model that assumes all children can learn given sufficient time and sound instruction. Indeed, one of the districts providing this “second chance” is assigning students who “fail” a 55 so that they can eventually earn a “passing grade” of 60!

When “60” is passing and passing is presumably evidence of preparedness to take on the next level of instruction we are not making any progress in breaking the time-is-constant-learning-is-variable model…

But we ARE at the very least changing the debate to a more fertile ground. In one week we’ve witnessed a massive paradigm shift in the two largest urban districts in the nation. First, as noted in earlier posts, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that tests will no longer be the sole (or primary) gatekeeper for entry to “competitive” Middle and High Schools– ending the reign of the test-ocracy in that district and opening the doors for alternative forms of identifying students with academic promise. And now LAUSD announcing that its students will be given the time they need to achieve the passing grades required to (presumably) demonstrate their mastery of skills needed to successfully progress in school. 

It’s possible that once vaccines are administered and masks are no longer needed we might return to a different landscape in public education than the one we left before the pandemic struck. If that landscape does not rely on standardized tests and sorting and selecting based on arbitrary time limits we will look back at the pandemic as a blessing for children who think and mature differently. 

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