School Board Nixes Pleas for Letter Grades

By: 
Bill Pearl

LBUSD’s School Board voted 5-0 on May 20 to support a policy announced by LBUSD staff on April 16 (without a prior board vote) that will give LBUSD high school students a “credit/no credit” mark on their record with no option to “opt in” to receive the letter grade they earned in the current COVID-19 impacted semester.

The action came despite an online petition that garnered over 1,600 signatures, created by Millikan High sophomore Riley Cantrell, that urged letting students “opt-in” for a letter grade, stating that not allowing the option of a letter grade would harm their college application competitiveness.

May 20 public testimony was nearly unanimous in urging an opt-in letter grade choice.

Some examples: Corliss Lee: Eastside Voice, president: “Students are still going to have compete for seats in university and colleges and their GPA matters. If they have done the work, they deserve the grade. Taking away a grade they worked for is an unnecessary penalty.”

Millikan High English teacher David Poerschke said not allowing students to receive a letter grade “does many of our students a disservice … I can’t help but sense that in the next three years, a LBUSD high school students’  transcripts with credit for courses this semester and grades for all the others will not be given the same consideration [in college admission decisions] as the student from another district who has letter grades for all semesters on his or her transcript.”

Christy Brown: “My child has a chance to become a National Merit Scholar based on his PSAT score in which he scored in the 99th percentile. Taking away students’ grades ... could harm students’ ability to receive merit and academic scholarship. This could harm students financially.”

Ann Cantrell, a retired teacher and petition-initiator Riley Cantrell’s grandmother, said not allowing an opt-in for a letter grade would put LBUSD students at a disadvantage – especially AP students who would have received 5 GPA points for an “A” grade. “Their cumulative grade point average will be lower than students from those districts allowing a choice.”

Petition-initiator Riley Cantrell said: Plenty of other districts around the country are giving their students a choice. We are the minority who cannot choose what we want. Students with letter grades will have higher GPAs than ours. They will be accepted into colleges over us. We are at a higher probability of failure. All our countless hours spent studying and completing assignments will not be accounted for.”

The sole public testimony against an opt-in provision came from Californians For Justice, which described itself as working for “educational equity and racial justice by building the power of youth, communities of color, immigrants, low income families and the LGBTQ communities. It urged the board to “not provide an opt-in option.

“Passing a last-minute, opt-in option will further exacerbate inequalities and the achievement gap within the district for the benefit of a privileged few. To keep expectations of grades the same when folks are worried about having stable housing, food to eat and family members who are essential workers that are putting their lives at risk [is] inhumane. It does not center equity or inclusion for all LBUSD students.”

Superintendent Chris Steinhauser told the board simply: “Staff is not recommending that we change that policy for numerous reasons why we started the policy. And just for clarification there are many districts in the state as well as the nation that are doing a credit/no credit policy. Just a few in California are San Francisco, Palo Alto, Irvine, Garden Grove [and] Long Beach, just to mention a few.”

School board member Dr. Juan Benitez (represents Central LB area) made a motion “To continue current policy regarding grades. Is it equitable for our students with limited to no opportunity, for our students with limited to no resources, for our students with varying levels and degrees or varying ability, for our students with limited to no options, to compete with some students that because of their opportunities and resources and privileges.

“And it’s not to blame one of the other, but because of these privileges and resources and capital that they’ve been afforded that they would get much further ahead and would get the opportunity to get much further ahead. No matter how hard our struggling students are trying, they’re not on an equal playing field. The philosophy behind our “no harm” policy on no grading upholds our commitment to equality for all.”

ELB School board representative Diana Craighead (whose district includes Millikan High) seconded Dr. Benitez’s motion but didn’t respond to his description of “privilege.” She said a Press-Telegram article had indicated L.A.’s school district lets its students receive in June whatever grade they’d earned by March 13 with no risk of a lower grade. “I kind of take offense to [comparing] our policy of credit/no credit when you’re being put up against this policy of giving grades when there’s not a true value to those grades.” She said LBUSD is “doing the right thing” and supports the district’s policy.

Boardmember Megan Kerr (whose district includes North Long Beach) said she’d made her feelings known on her public Facebook page. On May 12, she wrote on her page in pertinent part:

“Allowing students an opt-in for letter grades to enable them to ‘get ahead’ or to ‘be even more competitive’ is fundamentally unjust. It does a grave disservice to those who do not have the opportunity, through no fault of their own, to invest additional time in their studies during this pandemic. It would exacerbate the already large opportunity gap we experience in our district.”

At the May 20 Board meeting, Boardmember Kerr added: “We’re not harming folks by not allowing them to get an advantage over their peers. What we’re saying is … no student has control for what’s happening in the world and in their home and with their employment status and so we’re going to relieve the burden of feeling like they have to over-perform just to stay even with their peers.”

Immediately before the vote, ELB Boardmember Craighead added: “For those students who are high achieving, for those students who have an excellent work ethic and for those students who have goals of attending the school of their dream and everything else, stay at it, keep working, stay motivated, you will be rewarded for your efforts and just, you know, congratulations on doing so well but continue to do that.”

A specifically agendized vote on the opt-in issue might not have come to LBUSD’s elected board if not for LBUSD’s process that lets the public request the agendizing of a specific issue; if the superintendent agrees, it’s done. Ann Cantrell was one of two parents who did so.

 

The Long Beach City Council doesn’t currently let the public agendize items for council voted action. The public lost that right over twenty years ago in a stealthful removal that LB’s current Mayor and Councilmembers haven’t changed.

By mid-1996, Mayor O’Neill (elected two years earlier) had grown less tolerant of residents objecting to things she wanted done. Petitions and a lawsuit flew over a proposed pay-for-play sports complex in El Dorado Park.

Meanwhile, across town, pre-internet faxes flew over a port-desired plan to bulldoze the LB Naval Station (with ample high-rise housing, a gymnasium and swimming pool) for what video-journalist Huell Howser later derided as a “container yard.”

Mayor O’Neill showed her disdain for individuals she didn’t name during an August 1996 meeting of CA delegates to the Democrats’ National Convention. After thanking President Clinton’s administration for COPS grants, HUD and EDA assistance, Mayor O’Neill stated: “Don’t listen to the CAVE people, those are Citizens Against Virtually Everything” (for which she was cheered and applauded.)

In that atmosphere, an item quietly appeared on the June 11, 1996 City Council agenda listed as “changing the order of business” at the council meetings that erased an item of council business – “communications from the public” – which were items put on the council agenda by members of the public. 

The vote was 9-0: Yes: Oropeza, Lowenthal (Alan), Drummond, Clark, Robbins, Topsy-Elvord, Donelon, Kellogg, Shultz.  And poof, the public’s ability to agendize council items disappeared.

LB’s current mayor and council could move to restore the public’s former right to agendize items for council action on any Tuesday, but thus far haven’t done so.

Bill Pearl is the online publisher of LBReport.com.

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