NEWMAN - A temporary grading policy for middle school and high school students, approved by the Newman-Crows Landing school board at its Nov. 9 meeting over the objections of numerous teachers, offers a safety net to students who fall behind because they do not turn in assignments.

The policy no longer allows teachers to give a student a “zero” on assignments that are not turned in, instead requiring a minimum score of 50 points on a 100-point scale be awarded on all assignments.

The board voted 4-1, with Vern Snodderly dissenting, to implement the temporary grading system. The policy will be retroactive to the start of the school year and remain in place during the period of distance learning.

Teachers who do not use a 100-point scale can opt for a four-point grading scale equivalent as an alternative - but it was the 50-point minimum which was the focus of discussion before the board.

The temporary policy, Superintendent Randy Fillpot explained, gives students the opportunity to pass a course even if they have missed assignments. Otherwise, he said, a small number of missed assignments resulting in “zero” points could leave a student with no opportunity to pass a class.

A student who continually fails to turn in work will still fail the course, Fillpot pointed out.

He also said the grading policy also brings the scale for a failing grade proportionately into line with the other 10-point spans for each letter grade on the A-F spectrum.

“I don’t see this as being something that is going to shift grades from C’s to A’s,” Fillpot commented. “It is giving a student a better opportunity of being able to pass the class who was going to flunk it.”

Some teachers are already using a 50-point minimum, he told Mattos Newspapers.

Many but not all teachers who weighed in on the topic with letters to the board - several of which were read during the meeting - came out in opposition.

Nearly 20 Yolo Middle School teachers submitted a letter stating that “implementing a grading policy that gives students 50 percent credit for assignments not completed is not preparing them for life,” the letter stated. “We are doing our students a disservice by not holding them accountable for earning their grades, credits and diplomas.”

Part of their responsibility as educators, the letter stated, includes “teaching (students) about respect, consequences, deadlines, responsibility, work ethic, perseverance and being resilient. These are the skills and characteristics students need to be college and career ready.”

Samantha Felber, one of the Yolo teachers represented on the letter of opposition, told Mattos Newspapers that struggling students already have a variety of supports available to them.

“Not one teacher will fail a student who is trying. Not one teacher will not reach out to students (who are struggling),” Felber commented. “All of us at Yolo have our assignments open. They are able to make up assignments at any time. They are given that opportunity, and we have days set aside in class as a makeup day to help them out with anything they haven’t done. All of that is in place.”

The grading policy is unfair to those students who are working hard to earn their grades, Felber added.

Orestimba teacher Scott Felber echoed that sentiment in his letter.

“What will happen to a student who give everything they have to squeak by with a passing grade when they watch their friends do minimal work and get the same grade?,” he asked in his letter to the board.

Based on his experience in March, Scott Felber wrote, he was concerned about the unintended consequences of the policy. When students learned last spring that their fourth-quarter grades would have no impact on their semester grade, he shared, “the majority of the kids stopped working.”

Other educators came out in favor of the grading policy.

A letter submitted by Yolo staff members Korey Santor, Brandi Decator and Deirdre O’Rourke advocated adoption of the grading policy - which their letter indicated they already utilize.

“We have seen that by giving students a 50 percent grade for incomplete assignments we have not crushed their motivation to do better,” the proponents’ letter read. “In fact, as some have pointed out that this grading system would be a detriment to students we have seen the opposite effect. Using the concept of grading for mastery, research indicates that it is in the best interest of students. When we give students a 50 percent they see a way out of the many mistakes they have made.”

Decator said the grading policy assists students who are facing unprecedented challenges and difficult individual circumstances - such as having to look after younger siblings because both parents work outside the home.

“With this global pandemic students are faced with social and emotional things that we as adults cannot comprehend. Nobody has gone through this. These kids need our support and we try to give them that the best we can, but through a computer screen there are limitations,” Decator told Mattos Newspapers. “Some go off and play video games, but the majority want their education and want to feel connected. This board policy gives them a light at the end of the tunnel out of bad choices or circumstances that have been thrown upon them.”

Orestimba High teachers Kathryn Juarez, Garciela Olesen and Heidy Saldana expressed their concerns.

Colleges and universities will not “give students half credit for doing nothing,” their letter asserted.

“We would understand a policy in which we give students a fair chance at recuperating their grade for the second quarter, but the students that needed that chance are not taking it. They are still not turning in their assignments or participating in Zoom classes because we know they will ‘change their grade’ again at the end of the semester.”

They called for other alternatives to help students - with the teachers having a voice in that discussion.

Orestimba teacher Renee Stearns expressed a differing viewpoint, voicing support for the policy but only on a temporary basis.

“I believe we need solutions to keep our students from falling too far behind during distance learning,” she wrote. But any thought of extending the policy to a long-term basis, Stearns emphasized, should only be considered with teacher input.

Board members voted in favor of the temporary policy.

Tim Bazar predicted that grade-point-averages are going to become an increasingly important determinant of future opportunities available to students. He said he did not want to see Orestimba students put at a disadvantage when competing for college admission with students who came from schools that have adopted a more forgiving grading policy.

“I look at it and say, how devastating would it be to have this have five or six homework assignments, you miss two you are not going to be able to make those points up unless the final was so heavily weighted that the homework did not matter,” Bazar commented.

He questioned the fairness of a grading policy in which a relatively short period of time during which a student misses assignments could unfairly preclude the possibility of getting even a C grade.

“There isn’t any way to get out of it once you have messed up,” Bazar stated.

Teachers often may not know the challenges and circumstances facing students during distance learning, Bazar pointed out. 

“It makes sense to make this change temporarily to ensure that our kids are on the same playing field as other kids that we know of,” he said.

Paul Wallace supported the temporary policy with the caveat that district administration work with teachers to develop a “more permanent and inclusive” grading system.

A missing assignment on a zero-based grading system can be devastating mathematically, Wallace said.

“I do understand the problem of lowering our standards,” Wallace stated, “but the math of this is really compelling.”

Teachers uncomfortable with the percentage grading policy have the option of using a four-point scale instead, he pointed out.

Snodderly, who cast the lone vote against adopting the policy, expressed his reservations.

“A lot of teachers have strong opinions about it,” he stated. “I would like to see somewhere in the resolution where if a zero is warranted the teacher needs to let the administrator know (what steps they had taken to try to help the student). I just hate taking that away from the teacher. I understand that it is temporary, but I am agreeing with the teachers that oppose it.”

Snodderly reiterated his concerns during his board member comments.

“We have so many teachers in opposition,” he reiterated. “I don’t think this was so critical that we had to do it tonight.”