Credit/ no credit: Not the perfect solution, but the best solution

April 25, 2020

As the Los Altos School Board Representative for the last two years, I’ve participated in various board discussions on topics ranging from stadium lights to our new bell schedule. With the current shelter-in-place and school closure caused by COVID-19, the grading policy has arguably become the most contentious discussion yet, and with good reason. 

There are valid arguments for both letter grades and credit/no credit, but after hearing the various perspectives regarding the issue, I believe that the board made the correct decision in implementing a credit/no credit system for all students. In reality, any form of letter grading policy will only result in more complications than solutions, and more importantly, it implies that the district values the academic achievement of certain students over the well-being and learning of the entire community.

Letter grades are supposedly indicators of academic performance and achievement. However, the truth is that we are no longer in the classroom; online learning is by no means the same as in-class learning. Furthermore, this isn’t just any typical online learning. It’s emergency online learning. Maintaining the same practices and grading policies as before is unreasonable and does not address the needs of all the students in our community.

For instance, our teachers are not equipped with the necessary training and online platforms to effectively assess students in their classes. Students do not have the same access to the resources they might have had in a school setting. In this remote environment, it becomes extremely difficult to even gauge how well a student is performing and the causes of such performance. Letter grades, within our district and throughout the country, will lose much of the meaning they were intended to carry.

Colleges will and have recognized this. Universities including UCs, CSUs, Harvard and Stanford have already released statements saying that no student will be penalized for having credit/no credit marks on their transcript. This also implies that those with letter grades will not be rewarded. Colleges understand that there are countless factors going into transcripts this semester, so anything that appears on it will definitely not be a deciding factor in admission.

We also need to realize that we are not alone in this decision: Palo Alto, San Mateo, Santa Clara, San Jose, Campbell, Gilroy, Morgan Hill, Acalanes and San Ramon school districts have also switched to a credit/no credit system. With so many other high schools in the same boat, it won’t make a difference for letter grades to exist within a single district.

While some may argue that using third quarter letter grades will allow students’ hard work before the pandemic to be recognized, this logic also proves flawed. As previously mentioned, any sort of letter grade will have little, if any, weight at all. To believe that colleges will acknowledge a quarter grade as a representation of one’s learning throughout the entire semester will only provide false hope to students. Furthermore, if students had the choice between letter grades and credit/no credit, they would likely manipulate the grading policy so that it only benefits themselves, artificially inflating grades and further corrupting the validity behind any GPA produced during this semester. 

What does matter and benefit students is how they conduct themselves despite the unfavorable conditions they may face. For those concerned about college applications, the qualitative aspects of your application (personal statement, supplemental essays, teacher recommendations, additional comments) will become increasingly important—these components will convey information about you that numbers and statistics can’t. 

Rather than dedicating all your time and effort to an ambiguous letter grade, focus your attention on something that will actually have a substantial impact on your college applications. A well-written letter of recommendation attesting to your perseverance and dedication to learning or an essay describing how you used this pandemic as an opportunity to explore a passion will be infinitely more valuable than your GPA for this semester. For students primarily applying to public schools, which rely more heavily on GPA and test scores, the factors for admission will likely change accordingly to accommodate the widespread shift to credit/no credit.

Above all, credit/no credit is simply the best grading policy when it comes to equity. Continuing with letter grades prioritizes already high-achieving students, further widening the achievement gap. During these times, an A through distance learning may only be the result of one’s privilege or access to resources. Many of our students rely on the free services and assistance provided on campus, such the library and tutorial center, office hours of teachers, stable WiFi and a quiet place to work. Evaluating students by the same standards would discriminate against those who lack the opportunities typically provided in a school setting. 

During such a time, our emphasis should be on learning and the health of our students, not grades. Having this debate in the first place highlights one of the flaws of our district. By focusing so much of our attention on the potential implementation of a flawed letter grade policy and figuring out how each student can maximize their GPA, we are losing sight of what’s truly important during this time: learning (both academically and personally) and maintaining the health of the entire community.

With so much uncertainty in our community, we need to focus on what’s most essential. The goal of the district is to educate, and education is about learning, not grades. While grades do play a significant role in learning, it should not form the foundation. In fact, I find it concerning when students no longer see the value in learning if they aren’t rewarded with a letter grade. Letter grades have their benefits, but for this semester, they simply shouldn’t be a priority.

After reading almost all of the comments on the Change.org petition and “Mountain View Voice” articles, I was disheartened by the reasoning behind some community members’ opinions. Personally, I don’t care about the numbers of the survey sent to the community or whether there are small solutions to the infinite complications of a letter grade policy. To think that one’s difficulties getting into a competitive college are more important than the struggles of some members of our community is selfish and ignorant. Valuing college applications during this time is understandable, and there are countless ways to improve your chances aside from grades. However, expecting the district to shift their focus away from students with more pressing issues so that others can get individual recognition through a letter grade demonstrates a lack of empathy and awareness. 

As a community, we need to look at the larger picture. We are in a global pandemic, and no, we can’t just return to normal. We have been forced to reassess what’s most valuable to us, not only on an individual scale but at a district level as well. With the virus disproportionately affecting certain members of our community, maintaining letter grades at this time would send the message that we value the academic achievement of some students over the wellbeing of the community as a whole. By switching to a blanket credit/no credit system, our district correctly prioritizes what matters during this pandemic: our learning and our health.

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