Education reform makes a splash – but not without its critics

November 30, 2021

Students averaging a 26% in their classes. Parents terrified that their children can’t recover their failing grades. Black and Hispanic people facing severe punishment from teachers and administrators.

The reality that CCSD’s progressive education reformers depicted was often bleak and unfair. Their victory this past summer marked the beginning of a new system in CCSD – one that advocates said would make the district fairer, and opponents said would make students lazier. School board meetings that were already tense grew explosive as people on both sides intensely expressed their opinions.

These are the stories of how the new system has affected people across the valley.

The student impact

Reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic, CCSD adopted several new grading policies for teachers to implement for a more efficient transition to in-person learning. The minimum 50% policy, suspension of punishing late work and decoupling of citizenship from grades all give students room for improvement. Making summative assignments (tests and presentations) account for 90% of a student’s grade is another policy they implemented.


With students preferring to keep a 50% on a test rather than trying to make it up, this new normal in schools has had a very negative impact on the success of students. The 2022 school year policies put in place by CCSD, such as the late work, retake and minimum F rules, are significantly affecting student success. Though these policies were designed to benefit students and promote equity, some say they’ve resulted in decreased work ethic and learning.


“Personally, I don’t like it because it’s making people feel lazy and it focuses more on tests than the actual work,” junior Xyrah Tiongson said. “Some people do all the formative and somewhat hard work but do badly on tests, while others skip all the class work and homework and focus on summatives. Yet, those people who focus on summatives get a way higher grade than those who do the actual class work.”


There are a variety of students who report the new late-work policy inadvertently disincentivizes them from doing work. 


“[The late work policy] makes me procrastinate a little more because I realized ‘Oh, I can relax for a day and not do my work,’ but it’s so easy to fall behind,” junior Lillie Newton said. 


However, even though students are able to turn in work late, they still have to turn it in before the end of the quarter. 


“So I think in some aspects, it’s helpful, but I don’t think we should get five whole weeks to do an assignment that was due three days ago,” Newton said. “It creates some unneeded stress because technically we can skip on assignments but it will be more work later.”


Furthermore, the minimum F and retakes have caused less effort to be taken to do well on assignments.


“I don’t have to put in as much effort into normal school stuff unlike summative,” Tiongson said. “It doesn’t really matter anymore, because it doesn’t really affect my grade as much as a test would.”


Kids in school are able to be lazy and procrastinate through a majority of assignments which only pushes them to rush towards the end of the due date, causing more stress. 


“I do feel stressed when the deadline comes around and I’d get distracted the whole day on the deadline doing it,” Tiongson said. “Having a limited amount of time also restricts the quality of the work I do and the time I have to put into it.”


Even though retake opportunities are present, the opportunity is avoided by individuals due to not knowing if they’ll know enough to pass the second test. 


“I know some students think the minimum F and retake policy is an excuse for not studying, but  it’s still summative,” Newton said. “So if you don’t do well on the first test, yes you have a chance to take it again. But in some classes we don’t get feedback on some of the things that we did wrong. So you can’t improve if you don’t know what you did wrong. You can’t get a better score. So it’s better to just study for the first test.”


Contrarily, a multitude of students enjoy the policy potentially being that it reduces their anxiety and provides a stronger safety net.


“It gives me a leniency to do work since I’m always busy with cheerleading and athletics,” junior Taycee Brewer said. “It lets me relax with all my studies and helps me maintain my grade even though I can’t be there to care for it all the time.”


Specific students knowing that either way they wouldn’t get below an F on an assignment, is sometimes good enough for them.


“It’s nice to know I have a safety, I can sacrifice some missing assignments since I’ll get a 50% either way,” junior Jacob Struble said. “It’s like an assurance.”


It’s rare for students to undergo such a radical overhaul of their curriculum and the expectations they face. Students at SW and across the valley may adapt to the policies, though the war over these policies will likely continue for years to come.


“This policy helps me a lot because I have the ability to do better on a test and genuinely learn from it,” senior Keisha Farrales said. “There are things I just don’t comprehend in time for a test and later when I realize the mistakes I make, I finally understand why and how that concept works. Retaking test gave me the opportunity to get my grades up and achieve my goal of getting straight As.” 

Teachers’ half-hopeful, half-terrified response

As the new school year approached, many teachers had a sense of uncertainty lingering around due to the grading reform policy. 


Not knowing whether it was going to remain the same or change, many teachers were only notified two weeks before and had to change some of their usual curriculum for classes.


“When I first heard about the grading reform, to be honest, I was angry,” Fashion teacher Levi Harbeson. “I think it’s a huge disservice to students. Students are not being trained for the real world.”


There are not only disservices to students, but teachers as well. With students now being able to retake quizzes three times and turn in assignments late, teachers have had an increase in workload. 


“Grading reform makes the process of grading, especially using Canvas, much more tedious,” Fashion teacher Levi Harbeson said. “There’s a substantial amount of set-up that has to be done to make sure that grading categories and late scores are set up correctly. Additionally, we can’t do complete/incomplete grades right now – which were handy in the hands-on tech classes.”


Although many teachers agree that this policy will be able to help students in the long-run catch up and succeed, many believe it is unfair to those who work hard on the first try. 


“It’s taking away the seriousness of it [tests],” Pharmacy teacher Cynthia Wong said. “The one thing I’m really concerned about is if students get used to, ‘Well I might stink at this one, I can take it again.’ I keep telling them it’s not easy to retake and get it right the first time so you’re happy with your grade. Students will ask me for the retake date before the quiz or test.”


Teachers, like English 11 teacher Laura Penrod, believe that the new grading reform will also decrease students’ real learning experiences. 


“The grade reform directly after the pandemic and with little to no teacher/staff/admin training is a disaster,” Penrod said. “Students are too trained to earn something for everything they do vs. doing things because it helps them with the end product regardless of the ‘grade.’ Students don’t see value in learning and don’t enjoy it for the most part, so it seems like they genuinely don’t care unless it is a 90% grade. The problem is that the 90% grade won’t be the caliber they want when they don’t take the steps they need. As I told my students today, everyone wants the “A,” but people don’t want to do the work it takes to get there.”


The five-year strategic plan states that the goals of the CCSD Board of Trustees, like having 90% of high school students college and career ready, will all be fulfilled within the next five years.


“I don’t even know the full plan, and I can already say without a doubt it is a nightmare and only foresee it getting worse, not better. As with all things with CCSD, I think it will follow through with a considerable turnover in educators and potentially losing students to Charter/Private schools even more,” Penrod said.


Programs like Pharmacy and Fashion in the professional world guarantee mostly one chance to get things right and teachers like Wong believe the new grading policy is affecting the mindset of students negatively. 


“Personally, it’s harder because if the students don’t do that well on a formative, it doesn’t really affect their grade which is great because they are learning but not great because I’m feeling like they don’t care,” Wong said. “We’re getting them ready to be out in the real world if they’re going to be healthcare providers and they don’t get do-overs and professors aren’t going to care that you had other things to study for. That’s all I am trying to tell them.”


Teachers have had a harder time prioritising the completion of students’ assignments with full effort the first time to be more successful.


“I think the grading reform is a huge disservice to students,” Harbeson said. “It is definitely going to hurt them in the long run. While I understand the reason behind the reform – allowing students more time to display understanding and mastery, removing behavior from grades- that’s not how the real world works.”


Not only are teachers left with new grading policies, but they are also left to prioritize student retakes. 


“Students not understanding the retake policy doesn’t ensure the same test or format. Students are not filling out the form in time to submit the retakes. Remediation is challenging to assign per student when there are 200 plus students for most teachers,” Penrod said. 

However, the change has not only affected the attitudes of student-teacher relationships but programs and the overall workload.


“I think the greatest difference for the program area teachers is that our timeline is much longer than in a core subject classroom,” Harbeson said. “For example, essays and speeches may take a few weeks to write. By comparison, fashion garment construction can be, and usually is, a much slower process, sometimes taking months to complete. This is not to say one is easier than the other, but to point out that the timelines make following the grading reform effectively challenging.”


Harbeson has had to deal with not just challenges to retaking summative assessments with the longer amount of time needed, but also with the fact that students aren’t caring enough about the formative assessments, because they’re not worth as much.


“I have several students who have realized that as long as they create a good final project, or they take a test well that they don’t need to complete the formative assessments, which is frustrating,” Harbeson said. “While this is definitely true mathematically, this prevents the students from gaining true mastery. Mastery requires practice, and consistent practice over long periods of time.”


The fact that students are essentially not doing work because they don’t feel they need to is significantly affecting their ability to learn and grow, according to Harbeson. 


“You can always improve, so even if you think you don’t need to do the Formative assessment because ‘you get it,’ by not completing it you are preventing yourself from continuing to grow and learn,” Harbeson said. 


There are also challenges in preparing students for the real world. As a career and technical based school, students receive CCR diplomas, meaning College and Career Ready. Some teachers, such as Harbeson, have concerns that this reform is cushioning students, and not preparing them for what life will be like in the future.


“To me, this grading reform is allowing students to develop a work ethic that will not translate into the real world,” Harbeson said. “There are deadlines and consequences in the real world, and if we fail to train students to succeed in that environment, we have truly failed the upcoming generation.”


Many teachers agree that while online learning was a disaster, the 2021-2022 school year is even more stressful.


“I was more hopeful that it would take more off my plate, and the focus could be teaching and less begging kids to care about their education. If anything, the work ethic is the worst I’ve seen in 16 years. I wasn’t necessarily excited, but I was more hopeful than I am now,” Penrod said. 


This is just the beginning of the five-year strategic plan, and who knows whether this will completely tank CCSD or make it better.

The future fights

CCSD is far from the only locality to overhaul education policy for the stated purpose of promoting racial equity. Cities and states across the country have been revamping classes, grading and school admission policies for K-12 students, largely to address persistent racial inequalities. New York, the largest city in the country, has been the center of this controversy. Democratic Mayor Bill De Blasio has pushed for the dropping of these admission tests, and the elimination of Gifted and Talented programs in general, contending that these policies are a crucial way of reducing racial segregation. 


New York’s elite specialized high schools require the passing of an entrance exam for admission. Disparities in these test scores are the primary cause of racial discrepancies. Black and Hispanics make up almost two-thirds of NYC public school students, while they’re less than 10% of the attendees at these preparatory schools. This year, only eight students were accepted to New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School.


“I honestly believe relaxing admission requirements is beneficial,” senior Franchesca Ramirez said. “It promotes racial equality because many minorities are not offered an equal education from the start, and giving them a chance to receive an education that they probably would never get the chance to have in their area is a better solution than nothing.”


Contrarily, many argue that these preparatory schools are a lifeline for working-class students who have no other avenue to get into a successful college. Eric Adams, the almost-certain next mayor of the city, has broken from de Blasio on the issue, saying that eliminating the Gifted and Talented program goes too far and he would instead “expand the opportunities for accelerated learning.”


“I don’t necessarily see this issue split on partisan lines, at least in New York City, which is an overwhelmingly Democratic city,” New York Times reporter Eliza Shapiro told the Shadow. “For example, many middle class Black and Latino families who tend to vote Democratic support the programs because they see them as necessary alternatives to struggling neighborhood schools.”


Asian-American students, who score the highest on these tests, are especially vulnerable to policies that would undermine the current admissions requirements. Asians are a significantly higher share of these schools than they are the city’s population, despite having a higher poverty rate than any other race in the city. 


“I believe that laxxing admission requirements for selective schools is unfair to those who work hard to get in,” senior Jacob de Leon said. “If a student who doesn’t work hard for anything in their lives gets in, then I believe it’s undeserving for them to claim a seat in the school rather than giving it to a student who actually wants to pursue a better education.”


Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia is also dropping grade and testing requirements for admission. This decision attracted national attention because the move for more accurate racial representation would directly lead to a substantial drop in the share of students who are Asian, and a significant increase in the share that is white. 


Advocates for racial diversity seem to forget that any education policy promoting applicants of one race will by necessity end up discriminating against applicants of another race,” Robby Soave, senior editor of the libertarian Reason Magazine, told us regarding the Thomas Jefferson decision. “I can’t imagine it’s good for student morale if many people on campus come to suspect that they were chosen to fill some racial quota, or represent some stereotype.”

CCSD is following in the footsteps of these other school districts, particularly New York, and is seeking to try and compensate for a percieved racial bias in education. Reforms such as the 50% or laxxing admission requirements are being designed for the express purpose of helping minority students. 


These fights – just like the current one in CCSD – are representative of a broader national battle between two competing forces: progressives who argue for upending education policy and curriculum to promote greater equity, and more moderate forces who think these policy changes punish hard-working students. California, for example, has pushed for straying away from differentiating students by math class difficulty until their junior year of high school. High schools in Montgomery County, Maryland have implemented this policy for English and other classes. Seattle is no longer providing honors classes to middle school students. And of course, several localities have adopted the minimum 50% policies, like CCSD.


“I definitely think we’re becoming more progressive and open-minded when it comes to our grading curriculum, and by doing so we’re opening up a lot more opportunity for children with household or personal circumstances that may be holding them back,” junior Alyssa Carmella said.


Proponents against the 50% policies argue that its implementation is detrimental to the ideals of hard work, and fail to adequately prepare students for the future. Particularly conservative leaning opponents argue that the grading system is bigoted towards students by treating them as if they were incapable. 


“It reflects this soft bigotry of low expectations around student effort and student behavior,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, “Is it because we think certain groups of kids aren’t capable of them?”


Clark County’s assortment of educational reforms are an effort to fix inequalities that liberals have pointed to for decades across the country. The decision to disentangle citizenship from class grades, for example, was made after years of progressives noting that Black students tend to be unfairly targeted and punished by teachers relative to white students. The San Diego Unified School District has also outlawed reducing points from students for late-work, citing vast racial discrepancies in the number of students who received failing grades. The decision, just like CCSD’s, drew praise from those arguing that it was an important step toward rectifying racial injustices, and condemnation from those who argued it would discourage hard work.


“While the policies themselves are helpful and fair, the motivation behind them needs to be in the best interest of the students,” senior Mackenzie Rankin said. “Perhaps more focus can be put on how to eliminate late work in the first place, not just how to mask it for a school’s reputation.”


It’s unclear how significant the effects of these changes around the country will be. Both proponents and critics are largely speculating on what kinds of impacts grade and testing reforms will happen. What should matter now is conducting more research, and listening to the lived experiences of staff and students to ensure we have the best, most effective policies for everyone involved


“I think the greatest thing about education is [that] no student is the same,” Carmella said. “The sooner we are able to facilitate our students and use their unique histories to uplift their learning experiments, the sooner we will see a permanent change for the better in not only CCSD, but the education system as a whole.”

The classroom wars likely won’t end soon

The COVID-19 pandemic only fostered more debates about the future of education. These debates probably won’t recede even as the virus does.

With the recent chaos concerning the school board, it’s even possible that another overhaul of CCSD’s education system will come soon. Some have pushed for, if not a total elimination of the policies, then a reform that doesn’t lift so many burdens from students.

The voices and concerns from teachers, students and parents should be centered in all of these debates. Avoiding the pitfalls that overhaul had in CCSD means looking at the lessons that other districts have learned and valuing the lived experiences of all involved.

“I think the greatest thing about education is [that] no student is the same,” Miguel said. “The sooner we are able to facilitate our students and use their unique histories to uplift their learning experiments, the sooner we will see a permanent change for the better in not only CCSD but the education system as a whole.”

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