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Districts take measures to inform communities on grading

California public school districts have used a variety of platforms to inform their students, families and communities about changes to their grading systems during the COVID-19 pandemic. Even before a joint statement was released from California State University and University of California systems, as well as the state’s community colleges, districts were considering how to move forward with creating an equitable grading system that held students harmless. ACSA worked with superintendents from districts in northern, central and southern California to collect examples of how they provided clarity to the grading systems, the cadence of communication and the response from their respective school communities.

Val Verde Unified School District ADA: 20,141

Michael McCormick, superintendent

How are you communicating your grading system changes? We chose a variety of high-tech and low-tech ways to communicate our new grading policy to ensure maximum reach. These included a letter mailed to the parents of every student in the district, posting on our Distance Learning Website, sending an email and text message to all families registered in our Student Information system, social media posts, and finally, we made a video to share that includes Closed Caption English and Spanish that was linked to several communications platforms.

Was there a lot of confusion? What type of feedback did you get from teachers and families about grading before you sent out communications on the topic? Initially, the grading policy was decided in collaboration with our teachers’ association through the COVID-19 MOU process. Our shared philosophy was “do no harm.” This mindset helped us shape the policy. We knew that certain students were satisfied with their grades on March 13, 2020, when school buildings were shut down. On the other hand, we knew students may want to improve their grades through distance learning. We knew we were on to something that made sense when we received no criticism. This is a time for empathy and grace and we succeeded in developing a grading policy that was fair and graceful.  Finally, we felt an obligation to share our grading policy beyond the district in hopes of helping other school districts. We knew we were among the first in our region to go public and we hoped our policy might provide a starting point for others.

What was your cadence of communication? Once we had a signed MOU with our teachers’ association, we notified the board. Then, we notified all district staff, students, and families. It should be noted that all parties were communicated within the same 24-hour period.

How did the message carry from administrators to teachers? We create simultaneous staff and family communication packets. We build two videos and two newsletter documents that are tailored for slightly different audiences. Both of these packets are released typically within an hour of each other. This way, everyone is receiving the same information at nearly the same time. The one that goes to students and families always includes messages from our Public Health Officer to reinforce the latest public health orders.

Did leaders or organizations help provide clarity? Since we were out of the gate pretty early, we blazed our own trail. We knew it made sense for our organization and thought it might make sense for others. CDE had yet to launch guidance on grading.

What has the reaction been like from parents and families? The reaction has been all positive. I believe that parents, students, and teachers are relieved. Everyone is trying to do their best during these unprecedented times.

What is the next focus? Distance learning to get to that goal of grading, getting to the end of the academic year and reassessing during the summer, or something else? We now have the bandwidth to be thinking about the opportunity to prepare students for the next grade level better than we ever have before. In other words, teachers do not have the pressure to cover large amounts of content/standards as they would in a brick and mortar setting. Moreover, the pressure of summative state assessments has been lifted. In response, teachers have been liberated to provide kids what they need. We fully believe that we will prepare students with the skills and dispositions they need to be successful in the next grade level such that the receiving teacher will be blown away.

Palo Alto Unified School District ADA: 11,992 Don Austin, superintendent How are you communicating your grading system changes? We are still trying to communicate our grading changes! People have a fixed mindset about aspects of school. They have certainty around kids waking up in the morning, getting dressed, having something to eat, going to a school near their home, spending the day with teachers, coming home in the afternoon, and receiving a grade to let everyone know how they did. In one week, the coronavirus erased almost all of those things. Frankly, it has been as impossible to keep up with communication here as in every other school district in the nation. We made the move quickly and without soliciting opinions beyond professionals in this space. We contacted top universities, ACSA Executive Director Wes Smith, Capitol Advisors, Paul Kanarak of College Wise, our principals, our associations, and our teacher leads. Our board placed their trust in our decision and allowed us to transition to a communication plan instead of prolonged debate. Going first has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage was not having to explain how everyone else was proceeding. The obvious disadvantage was starting as an outlier. We were confident in our decision and stayed to a tight message of protecting teachers and students in a time of tremendous uncertainty. We focused on equity, special education, historically disadvantaged and underrepresented, connectivity concerns, and the challenges of completely reimagining teaching and learning. How counter to resistance was, “How can we possibly guarantee meeting the needs of all students with one day of training in a system that already struggles to support the neediest students?” While not everyone agrees with our assessment of conditions, we did not feel confident in our ability to address the needs of all students and had already demonstrated the willingness of colleges and universities to honor credit/no credit for admissions purposes.  We now feel like we may have overwhelmed parents and students with information. It was a double-edged sword. Too little information leads to endless questions and a narrative that we are unprepared. Too much information allows for attacks of every word and runs the risk of being lost or ignored. We are going back out this week with a one-page guide for the person who needs something to put on the refrigerator.

 Was there a lot of confusion? What type of feedback did you get from teachers and families about grading before you sent out communications on the topic? The second I saw a letter from Harvard explaining they would accept different transcript options, I wondered why people weren’t talking about credit/no credit as an option. It looked like grading was going to be one of the most challenging aspects and possibly a variable we could make less complicated. Things were changing by the minute and we saw grading as an issue we could control. I have been advocating for school districts to have a serious discussion around the topic and have pushed pretty hard. While I have a strong opinion, I really just didn’t want my teammates across the state to miss the opportunity to decide after considering some aspects of grading including equity. Some of my good friends have gone in different directions and I totally respect their decisions. More than anything, I stepped out in hopes of starting a discussion around a topic with importance to our profession. It wasn’t/isn’t an approach without personal and professional risks. My board is very comfortable with our decision and was also supportive of leading some advocacy efforts. 

What was your cadence of communication? In times of crisis, large collaborative processes aren’t always the best way of reaching decisions. Our Instructional Leads were the key. The group of about 80 teachers unanimously supported the direction and appreciated what it did for teachers and students. While not required, we included the credit / no credit direction in our MOU with teachers. The letter to families was prepared in anticipation of an agreement. The MOU, press release, notice to students, email to principals, and email to administration were all released within 10 minutes of each other. Our district is very sensitive about who gets the information first. Our principals got it first after our board. Everyone else was pretty simultaneous. 

How did the message carry from administrators to teachers? We provided some additional talking points to our principals, but really tried to tell everyone that information would follow. It allowed us some space to see what the most popular questions were. There were a lot! We told our principals that the district office would handle the bulk of initial communication efforts. Heading into the fourth week, more will shift to the sites. Without a Public Information Officer, our team was working on the problems and communicating in near realtime. It was less than ideal and could have overexposed our team. We dodged most bullets, but it was definitely not an advisable path. On the other hand, we did control every word of the message. 

Did leaders or organizations help provide clarity? The CDE has not been a resource we have used throughout our steps regarding the canceling of the CAASPP or providing guidance around grading. We have worked with three main groups in addition to our professional network of colleagues. First, Wes Smith from ACSA has been a partner, advocate, and champion of our organization from the start. I connected with Wes almost daily, despite his wild schedule. He answered or returned every call and I am proud to count him among my friends. Kevin Gordon from Capitol Advisors is the lobbying equivalent of Wes. Similarly, I was with Kevin every single day between CAASPP and grading. He helped to navigate the system, provide accurate information, and pushed aspects of our agenda until we got what we needed. Paul Kanarak of College Wise is a long-time trusted advisor in the world of college admissions. He walked with us from the first day. Like the others, Paul is relentless, connected, and willing to fight the right fights. Beyond my own PAUSD team, which is exceptional, I have really enjoyed getting to know the superintendents across the state. We are all leaning on each other to make sense of these issues. We have some exceptional leaders in important seats! 

What has the reaction been like from parents and families? In most communities, every decision produces backlash of some kind. Like any veteran, I have some scars and callouses that have built up over time. If we are judged on popularity, I would say it had little impact. Our fans still love us. The people who trusted us still do. The people who dislike everything we do dislike this decision too. Our teachers expressed overwhelming thanks for the move and our principals fully supported it for all the reasons that make sense for our community. Kids make sense. They are processing emotions about losses bigger than a letter grade. My heart goes out to them for the things they didn’t get to do this semester. You only get one chance to do certain things. 

What is the next focus? Distance learning to get to that goal of grading, getting to the end of the academic year and reassessing during the summer, or something else? My mind is shifting to the future. I am considering having provisional calendars with different start dates depending on the conditions of the day. I am thinking about putting future construction projects on hold while we consider student groupings, social distancing, year-round options to address learning loss, and the potential in reductions in costs a few months from now. I am thinking about what to do if we aren’t open in the fall, including shifting to a system that will assign grades next year. We will all grapple with financial hits, including what to do if 30+ percent of our loaner devices don’t return. I’m thinking about how to address kindergarten students if we aren’t prepared to open. I am also thinking about mental health issues and the anxiety that is predictable if we return and are nailed with another outbreak. There is no resting! 

San Benito High School District

ADA: 3,108

Shawn Tennenbaum, superintendent

How are you communicating your grading system changes? We started globally with faculty as we started our school closure. We initially engaged the faculty in a large Zoom meeting—the faculty meeting had 147 people on it and the first topic was school closures. Then we moved to thoughts on grading through the lens of how do we create equitable pathways for all students to access distance learning. We had our instructional leadership teams involved and ultimately, we began engaging the board. Our administrative team and Ed Services department researched multiple grading options and ultimately we landed on an incomplete/pass/pass with distinction system. It’s similar to what we call our post-and-rails and we looked into what a district like Palo Alto Unified was doing. This gave us real foundational pieces because even though they may have different student demographics than we do, they had a lot of well-thought ideas.

What was your cadence of communication? We sent out a newsletter to 10,000 recipients in our school community. Then, we used social media and our website. We wanted to make sure that everyone understood what we were trying to accomplish and that the rationale was equity and making sure there was equitable participation for students. Something we had to consider were those students that we had not reached through this process and we knew there are dozens that likely didn’t have any connectivity to the new grading systems or distance learning in general. This week we’ll be starting our home visit process and trying to connect face-to-face to make sure every student is involved.

Was there a lot of confusion? What type of feedback did you get from teachers and families about grading before you sent out communications on the topic? Feedback has been positive on all fronts, from our district employees to our school community and beyond. They know the process wasn’t decided in a vacuum. We were very clear and transparent about what we wanted to accomplish and why.

How did the message carry from administrators to teachers? We wanted uniformity and consistency throughout the entire process. We didn’t want to have individuals communicating something different, which is why our Educational Services department created a standard message that discussed the foundational principles that we had. The message was sent to every faculty member and they were required to post it in each of their Google Classroom platforms.

Did leaders or organizations help provide clarity? The CDE guidelines were very helpful because they provided resources, which were clear and focused. We also did outreach to surrounding districts to see what they were doing and thinking about assessing student performance during COVID-19. Another key element that helped us were the guidelines being set forward by the UC and CSU systems. We also listened to how districts nationwide were addressing grading. We were on a national webinar and heard a lot about the learning landscape and the national perspective on addressing student performance during COVID-19.

What has the reaction been like from parents and families? We have had a strong, positive reaction from the entire school community. I think that has a lot to do with the process we used to determine what was best for students. We listened to what educators had to say and we leveraged an informed process that included voices outside of the district like CDE, universities, and other LEAs. One group that has been helpful through the process has been the teachers’ union. The president was supportive of the concept we communicated and he said, as far as the implications for the students, the grading changes were beneficial due to the circumstances. A grade is a currency for which performance is judged and there is an emotional side to that. We took that into account and he, just like so many in the community, realized that students are being impacted by COVID-19 in so many different ways and we needed to consider what was best for the students moving forward.

What is the next focus? Distance learning to get to that goal of grading, getting to the end of the academic year and reassessing during the summer, or something else? Our goal is to capitalize on the momentum, build for the future and prepare to reach learners in an environment that may be different from a brick and mortar facility. We are moving to fully online distance learning for summer school and looking at both credit recovery and enrichment and how we can accommodate and build lessons. We see this as an opportunity to flip the paradigm and support students with different means. What we hear right now is the distance learning platform has some added benefits because students can go back into Google Classroom and work on the subject matter when necessary. We see this as a chance to shape how our district moves forward and how our students can continue to grow and develop.

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