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California Offered High Schoolers a Chance to Change Their Lowest Grades During the Pandemic But Few Applied. Here’s Why and How Districts are Reacting

By Marianna McMurdock | September 21, 2021

High school students move between classes on E. Citrus Ave, 15 minutes east of San Bernardino, California. San Bernardino City Unified opened grade-change applications the third week of school to better spread word, yet only 2 percent of eligible high schoolers applied. (Stan Lim / Getty Images)

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California gave all high schoolers a two-week window this summer to change their 2020-21 letter grades to pass/no pass, an overture meant to soften the academic blow of COVID-19 on their GPA, but turns out very few took the state up on its offer.

Districts across the state reported they did not receive nearly as many applicants as anticipated and, as a result, there is some legislative momentum right now to extend the deadline.

School officials attributed the weak response to a number of factors, including summer communication lags and a concern among students that having pass/no pass outcomes on their transcripts would hurt their college prospects.

“Sometimes it feels like our families have some school messenger fatigue, where they don’t always hear them or listen to them,” said Tess Seay, head counselor at Fresno High School in the state’s Central Valley. Of their over 2,000 students, roughly 50 requested grade changes before their district’s Aug. 17 deadline, five days after their first day of school. They expected at least 100.

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The ability to purge a low letter grade from your record has very real consequences. For two students on the cusp of 2.0 GPAs, Seay said the grade change option pushed them over that eligibility threshold for Cal Grants, the state’s loan-free financial aid. Some Cal Grants could provide as much as $14,226 per year for college tuition, making a significant financial impact for low-income students.

California legislators in July passed the law designed to not penalize students for the challenges that came with remote learning during the pandemic. In addition to the pass/no pass option, families could also request that their child repeat a grade or waive particular high school graduation requirements not mandated by the state.

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The law required that districts notify families by Aug. 2 and provide a two-week application period. Many have questioned whether the timeline adequately enabled families — particularly those without regular internet access, or who may have been offline during the summer — to seriously consider their grade change options.

In San Bernardino, students returned to in-person learning Aug. 2 for the first time since March 2020. Anticipating a more hectic than usual back-to-school season as a result, the district opened English and Spanish-language grade-change applications on Aug. 16 for their 14,911 high schoolers, weeks after many other districts.

By Aug. 31, the district east of Los Angeles received 256 applications — just under 2 percent of those eligible.

“By design, we planned to start [the application window] the third week of school, allowing students, families, and counselors to focus on [the new state policy] and not overlook it in the rush of the start of the school year. This way students were settled into a routine before we brought it to their attention,” Maria Garcia, the district’s communications officer, said in an email to The 74.

Each San Bernardino high school website flags the policy and directs families to the district application. Families were also notified via their district’s phone app [Parent Square], social media and email newsletters.

Nancy Witrado, director of counseling and guidance with Fresno Unified School District, said their application was made available via a fillable PDF, available in Hmong, Spanish and English. While they did not track the demographic details of who applied, she told The 74 that many originated from a high school in northern Fresno county with a history of high parental engagement.

Many Fresno families filled out applications incorrectly, asking to change Bs or Fs to pass; the former would not benefit students and the latter would be impossible. The district is now paying overtime to several registrar and counseling employees to meet about 200 requests.

“We have a lot of follow-up to do, and to try to connect with parents to make sure that they have a full understanding of what it is they’re asking for,” Witrado said.

Fresno Unified stuck to its Aug. 17 cutoff, though Witrado says not many families have reached out after-the-fact. One instance, of an application mistakenly submitted to a student’s teacher, will be honored because it came in before the deadline.

Problems reaching families may not be the only driver behind fewer grade-change requests — some college-bound students were warded off by the worry that a pass/no pass grade carried negative connotations with admissions officers.

Cecilia Roeder Chang, a senior at Gunn High School in affluent Palo Alto, said her district and school did a great job of getting the word out online, and her peers even posted about it on Instagram. Last school year she earned two Cs, in physics and foreign policy, that she considered changing to pass.

“I originally had decided that I was going to. Then I emailed my school counselor, and they replied back that colleges didn’t like that as much. So I decided against [it],” she said.

Roeder Chang, who is applying to both in- and out-of-state schools, was not made aware that all California State Universities and all campuses within the University of California system must accept transcripts with pass/no pass grades, or that some Cal Grants require a minimum 2.0 GPA. Her peers did not apply for grade changes, she said, given that they had mostly As and Bs.

The knowledge that some are able to change low grades for the better, after the school year’s end, has garnered mixed feelings.

“I sort of feel conflicted because on one hand, if you do have like lower grades it is helpful, but also on the other hand, if you are one of those people who are getting consistently like higher grades, you can feel like, I don’t want to say annoyance — maybe a little frustration.”

North of Roeder Chang’s Palo Alto, Oakland Unified School District received 660 applications in Chinese, Arabic, English, Spanish and Vietnamese. All of the district’s 13 high schools were represented, and the highest volume of applications were submitted by students at Skyline, Oakland Tech and Oakland High, the largest schools. Only two families have reached out after the district’s Aug. 16 deadline.

“Given this was the first legislation of its kind, we didn’t anticipate a certain number of requests and made sure we were prepared to handle a large number,” John Sasaki, the district’s communications director, told The 74 by email.

From a policy standpoint, advocates caution against permanent alternative grading. The Collaborative for Student Success, a national nonprofit that aims to make students prepared for post-secondary education, expressed concern for pass/no pass policies over longer periods, saying they may lead to decreased expectations for students and less accurate student data.

Short-term adjustments to grading policies can be beneficial for students who may need to heal from collective trauma, said one former high school math teacher who now works with the Collaborative. Recalling how his Las Vegas school let up on requirements after a mass shooting in October 2017, he said changing grading policies provided students with needed flexibility.

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He said that other supports — like removing deadlines or penalties for late work — may adequately support students without overhauling A-F grading, which feeds into many other systems like financial aid, school report cards and state reporting.

San Diego Unified — the state’s second-largest district — saw a surge in D and F grades during the pandemic. Only 290 of their 36,000 high schoolers applied for grade changes. The district discouraged families from seeking no pass grades for Ds and Fs in its communications — recommending instead that the grade be “suppressed” by repeating the class.

Because of low application rates and school capacity to process applications at the start of the school year, San Diego state Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who authored the state law, is now recommending districts extend deadlines voluntarily and is pursuing legislation to formally extend the deadline to October.

“I will say we’re a little disappointed with the lack of flexibility with some of the districts,” Gonzalez said. “If you feel like you missed [the deadline], contact the school district. Really push.”

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