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Grading Practices, Interventions and Articulation Can Impact College and Career Readiness

By Fal Asrani, Ed.D. - August 18, 2011
(Part Two of Two)

(Editor’s Note: Three weeks ago, EdBrief carried a Reports and Research item about a new report from The Education Trust-West titled Unlocking Doors and Expanding Opportunity: Moving Beyond the Limiting Reality of College and Career Readiness in California High Schools.

Last week, EdBrief began a two-part article by Fal Asrani, Assistant Superintendent, Educational Services with the Campbell Union High School District (in Santa Clara County) offering a working school district administrator’s critique and observations regarding the Education Trust-West Report.)

To review Part One of Asrani’s article, click here.

Here is Part Two.

The Ed-Trust-West report finds:

Grading Practices: School-level grading practices have a major impact on students’ ability to achieve UC/CSU eligibility. One D or F grade in a single course can prevent a student from completing the A-G sequence. Our partner districts displayed a broad variation in grading practices, with few standards in place for how teachers assign grades. Further, we consistently found insufficient opportunities to remediate D grades in order to maintain A-G eligibility.

Principals confirm that the high numbers of D/F grades in their schools raise high levels of concern, but as per the California Education Code(1) a teacher’s grade can only be questioned when and if inconsistencies are noted. Issues around student apathy in school and a disconnect leading to drop-outs have been directly related to failure rates and Reeves research around low performing schools confirms that existing grading practices directly contribute to this issue.  Usually, the first D/F grade occurs in the October – November timeframe, and sets the tone for the rest of the semester for that course. With an emphasis on summative assessments, current grading practices are based on end of the chapter tests and large final tests/projects, that provide little time or opportunity to remediate. Additionally the grading rubric counts 0-59 as an ‘F’, while 10 points separate the other bands, D-A. It is hard to get out of the hole that an ‘F’ creates.

College ready transcripts require a grade of C or above in A-G courses.  DuFour(2), Reeves and others have embarked on creating a paradigm shift amongst educators to address issues of assessment around what students need to know and are able to do, how that is being measured and what we do when they have not learned it.

Standards-based grading provides the foundation of this discussion. It challenges teachers and educators to align their lesson plans to State standards that are identified for each course, and then calibrate their assessment to the standards. Working collaboratively, the process allows teachers to share their work, and develop common grading rubrics that measure achievement of the learning objective. It provides for students to improve their learning until they meet the standard.  Several districts are engaged in this discussion and pockets of practice are noticeable.

One particular Linked Learning school made the courageous decision to do away with the ‘D’ grade and implement several opportunities to remediate a ‘F’ grade during the course of the semester. Their argument was that students must earn a ‘C’ on a course to keep their transcripts competitive for four-year admissions and the teachers rallied around providing multiple remediation opportunities. Could this practice and belief gather storm? I believe in larger schools, the shift is occurring in isolation in small groups; this is where Principal leadership is needed to create a shift in the entire culture. If indeed the goal is to prepare students for four year colleges, then there is a need to revisit the current practices of grading and a simple start would be for Principals to analyze the grade distribution at their own sites and start addressing the achievement gap that is perpetuated in these daily decisions.

The report also finds:

Few Systematic Interventions: In order to prevent students from falling behind or failing coursework, schools and districts must offer targeted, structured intervention opportunities.

Placing students in a repeat Algebra I course for remediation has an impact on the class environment. When more than 20% of the students are repeating the course, the impact of the remedial students on the first time enrollees are quite evident. Additionally, those who are repeating a course may wish to move faster in certain sections and waiting for new enrollees to catch up often adds to their frustration. Teachers also report that the discipline structure of the class is impacted due to the grade level differences amongst the students.  So schools simply try other alternatives; after school credit recovery, Summer School remediation or if possible, assigning a few sections each semester for subject specific remediation, where students are tracked together and often, the results are even more dismal.

An option that is most easily accessible, but least used, is the Online Credit Recovery option that can be made available during the day, allowing students to speed through a remediation course, without tying up an entire semester.  This alternative setup allows a student, depending on their motivation and commitment, to remediate a course within 15 weeks. Realistically, a student could remediate up to two courses within a semester, and one of these could be a concurrent course that he is failing that semester. Schools that I have observed have purchased licenses from an established broker of the UC approved online courses.  Schools that purchase the licenses do so at a lower rate using categorical funds, if available.

Intervention classes, on the other hand are distinctly separate in that they allow students to gain the necessary skills through extensive scaffolding strategies to support the foundational issues impacting learning.  By linking these intervention courses to A-G approved core courses, students remain A-G qualified, while gaining the skills to succeed and improve. One example comes to mind of a high school that created English 11 and English 12 courses as a double block; each of the A-G approved English core courses were supported by an Intervention class that provided students the skills for ongoing success in reading and writing. This option is also very encouraging for Special Education and EL students who need the additional support and alternatively, would have been placed in a non A-G English course because of their lack of preparedness.

These options are available and in practice at several California school districts. Once again, if the district clearly identifies its goals for all students to access A-G college readiness, then the options cited above are easier to implement.

In addition, the report finds:

Poor Articulation between School Levels: In most cases, districts fail to provide a clear articulation among the elementary, middle, and high school levels.

Several large and small districts and schools have embarked on this work, but the outcomes remain vague without clear and measurable objectives. Articulation around college readiness should be started in the 5th or 6th grade. This information, which includes discussions related to high school course options, graduation requirements, college selection and financial aid should be shared from an early stage. A particular school district instituted the six year plan, which includes 7-12 grade planning. This level of articulation creates opportunities for all students and reduces the inequity issues.

On another point, the report finds:

Lack of Senior-Year Rigor: We found a consistent lack of senior-year rigor for many students.

It is indeed a confirmed fact that seniors start mentally checking out around the spring session as most have either already confirmed their college placement or determined their post secondary options. Many school district schedules will confirm that seniors are allowed to take less than 5 courses, provided they are on track with graduation requirements. Several students are assigned as Teacher Aides for elective credit, which in most instances, involves little to no accountability for a grade. Once again, if the requirement for A-G courses were parallel to district graduation requirements, there could be a possible difference in the schedules, especially with the need for 4 years of math, science and English.

And lastly, the report finds:

Persistence of Tracking: Our analysis of course-taking patterns reveals two common tracks: college-preparatory and a “regular” course of study.

This is a result of the philosophical discussion I alluded to earlier. The Linked Learning initiative is trying to close the gap between these two tracks, by ensuring that students are provided post-graduate career options while also meeting A-G requirements. But despite this goal, Linked Learning data also demonstrates the same issues around the existing achievement gap. The only way to remove the two-track system is for school districts to roll up their sleeves and get to work with teachers, administrators, community and local businesses in recognizing that any other option that denies all students access to A-G requirements is simply perpetuating practices that negate equity and access for all students.


(1) 49066.  (a) When grades are given for any course of instruction taught in a school district, the grade given to each pupil shall be  the grade determined by the teacher of the course and the determination of the pupil's grade by the teacher, in the absence of clerical or mechanical mistake, fraud, bad faith, or incompetency, shall be final.

(2) Whatever It Takes: How Professional Learning Communities Respond When Kids Don’t Learn (DuFour, 2004)