School grades during coronavirus: S.F. proposes giving everyone an A

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San Francisco school officials, grappling with how to grade students during the coronavirus closures, have landed on a solution: Just give everyone an “A.”

The proposal stands out as the most extreme among districts across the state, with many, including Oakland and West Contra Costa, switching to a pass/fail system sanctioned by California’s public university systems.

The San Francisco school board mulled over several options during a nearly eight-hour meeting Tuesday, but settled on the preliminary idea of an automatic A for all high school and middle school students.

Elementary schools don’t give letter grades.

“Why not just give students A’s,” said school board member Alison Collins. “Let’s just consider this a wash and just give all students A’s.”

The proposal was largely supported by the seven-member board, but a final decision won’t be made until later this month — after staffer’s research the possible implications on college admissions.

School board President Mark Sanchez initially wanted to let high school students decide what grade they would get in each class, but he ceded to his colleagues.

“I guess giving an A to every kid means, ‘You survived, you did great work, you helped your family,’” Sanchez said. “It’s not going to be a grade for academics, clearly.”

The district’s teachers union said they would support giving all students A’s.

Lowell High School teacher Katherine Melvin also supported the idea.

“This epidemic happened to them,” she said. “They should not be held responsible or harmed by a pandemic that changed their ability to prove their success.”

The idea, however, stands in stark contrast to guidance from state officials, as well as the expectations of colleges and universities, including the University of California and California State University systems.

“We will accept credit or pass grades in classes that satisfy A-G (course) requirements for winter, spring and summer 2020,” said Mike Uhlenkamp, spokesman for the CSU Office of the Chancellor. “Those grades are not going to be included in high school GPA.”

No admission offers would be rescinded, Uhlenkamp added.

It was unclear, however, how a universal 4.0 grade-point average for the spring semester would affect future admissions, he said.

School board member Rachel Norton, who advocated for a pass/fail system, said that before the board makes a final decision, district staff needs to look into what impact guaranteed A’s would have on students.

“I’m happy to give everybody an A, as well,” she said. “I do want to be sure, however, that we are not putting our individual students in jeopardy by doing so.”

Superintendent Vincent Matthews said staff would look into the impact that straight and unconditional A’s would have, but he noted the proposal would likely be controversial regardless.

“If every student is going to get an A, we definitely will hear from parents and teachers,” he said. “If every student knows they’re going to get an A, for many, learning becomes optional for them.”

Like many districts, San Francisco shuttered schools for its 62,000 students on March 16 to combat the spread of the coronavirus and later decided they will not reopen this academic year.

District officials have broad leeway in how to conduct distance learning or grade students, although compulsory education laws still apply and teachers should continue to take attendance, state education officials have said.

In Los Angeles, district officials adopted a letter-grade system last week, but one that eliminates the possibility of an F, or failing grade. The lowest grade in the state’s largest district will be a D.

Other districts have maintained traditional letter grades for high school students or, in some cases, offered them the option of pass/fail instead.

State guidance does not include a guaranteed A as a possible option.

High school senior Betsy Herrera, a student member on the Board of Education, said she, too, wanted to ensure no student would fail during distance learning.

“This isn’t really a way of learning especially for people of low-income backgrounds and undocumented families,” she said. “The best way to handle the situation is just to pass all students.”

Sanchez said he could live with pass/fail.

“It’s such a crazy time,” he said. “This is just such a wasted semester.”

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