High school grading policy under fire
Did the high school district overreach when officials overhauled its grading system?
The new policy is "too big a step," according to one district parent, who says some teachers are adopting illogical assessment techniques that will hurt some students while artificially inflating the grades of others. The superintendent of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District disagrees, saying that whatever kinks there may be in the new system, they will all be smoothed out in time.
The district board of trustees discussed the issues surrounding the new grading system at great length at their Dec. 10 meeting, asking pointed questions of Superintendent Barry Groves and Associate Superintendent Brigitte Sarraf. They also heard a detailed presentation from Steve Uhlir, whose daughter is in her senior year at Mountain View High School.
"Overall, I'm really pleased," Groves said. "I think we're going in the right direction. There have been some bumps in the road, but I think we're working through that."
"I do not want to see any student get an unfairly low grade," Uhlir said at the beginning of his address to the board. His presentation, which lasted about 20 minutes, succeeded in convincing at least one of the trustees that changes need to be made.
Phil Faillace, the current board president, said he believes that the new grading policy, approved by the trustees at the end of last school year, is completely acceptable in principle. The policy requires that all classes within a given department be taught in a similar fashion, so that an A in one class is the same as an A in another teacher's class. In other words, no student should ever be able to say that he or she has the "easier" — or "harder" — teacher.
Faillace said it appears that certain departments — particularly the soft sciences and the humanities — have created systems that don't function the way they are intended.
"I think that in the course of doing that, they tried to set up some sort of mechanism — some automatic ways to move forward toward uniformly — and in so doing, they adopted mechanisms that were mathematically inconsistent with what they were trying to do."
Uhlir said he sees the same problem.
"I have no problem with the policy," he said after the meeting. "I have a problem with the way the policy is being practiced."
Afraid to speak out
According to Uhlir, he is not the only parent concerned with the new system. At the district meeting, he said that many parents have told him they are upset, but are afraid to speak up or perhaps don't have the time or understand the best way to make their voices heard.
A woman who is plugged into the Mountain View High School parent community, but declined to be identified, because she feels it would be inappropriate for her to speak out publicly given the title she holds, said many parents have expressed their dissatisfaction with the new grading system, but don't know what to do.
Uhlir also said that he has heard from a number of teachers who disagree with the new grading practices but are too afraid to speak for fear of professional consequences. He has been speaking out on this issue for those who are afraid to speak, he said. "My daughter is doing fine. I'm not worried about her."
Groves isn't so sure that there are as many who are upset as Uhlir claims. "In our community, our parents aren't reticent about talking to us about issues and successes that we have in our district," he told the Voice.
"Whenever you have a student's grade, we take them very seriously," Groves said. "Ensuring that students get the right grades is very important to us."
Groves said he is confident in his teachers' "professional judgment," and does not believe that any students will suffer serious academic outcomes as a result of the new grading policy. "I think when the semester comes to an end, students' grades will be similar to what they've received last year."
But the way Uhlir sees things, Groves and the district administration are focused too much on the forest and not enough on the individual trees. He said that he feels district administrators think it will be OK as long as the entire school averages out, and are not considering that such an averaging out overlooks the possibility that some kids that deserved a higher grade got a lower one while those that deserved a lower grade were dragged up.
"I do not believe these are minor glitches," he said. "Now is the time we have to act."
Uhlir said the only way he will be satisfied is if the district does an extensive student by student comparison — looking to see how they did in the previous year and how they did during the first semester of this year.