The San Diego Unified School District, for instance, moved this fall to abolish its traditional grading system. Students will still receive letter grades, but they won’t reflect average scores on papers, quizzes, and tests. Under the new system, pupils will not be penalized for failing to complete assignments or even show up for class, and teachers will give them extra opportunities to demonstrate their “mastery” of subjects. What constitutes mastery is not quite clear, but grades “shall not be influenced by behavior or factors that directly measure students’ knowledge and skills in the content area,” according to guidance from the district.
District officials evidently believe that the practice of grading students based on average scores is racist and that “antiracism” demands a learning environment free of the pressure to turn in assignments on time. As evidence for the urgency of these changes, the district released data showing that minority students received more Ds and Fs than white students: Just 7 percent of whites received failing grades, compared to 23 percent of Native Americans, 23 percent of Hispanics, and 20 percent of black students.
“This is part of our honest reckoning as a school district,” Vice President Richard Barrera told a local NBC affiliate. “If we’re actually going to be an anti-racist school district, we have to confront practices like this that have gone on for years and years.”
These changes to San Diego schools’ grading system are an excellent example of a bureaucracy citing a noble-sounding goal (who could be against anti-racism?) to justify a policy that doesn’t address the issue whatsoever. After all, eliminating these kinds of grades won’t eliminate the underlying inequities that produced the disparate failure rates. It may actually cover those inequities up: Given that grades are a tool for evaluating students’ progress, the district is essentially announcing that it will no longer gather as much evidence as it could about negative social phenomena it would presumably like to fix. Better grades do not mean students will suddenly have a better grasp of the material. They certainly won’t be better prepared for college, where traditional grades are very much still a thing.
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