Education Matters: Grading and testing, other odds and ends


A number of education issues from last year carry over to this year and are worth following.

A recent story in the San Diego Union-Tribune questioning traditional grading systems touched on a subject that’s bothered me for some time.

Marsha Sutton

The first sentence said it all: For local high school students, “…your chances of getting a good grade are better or worse depending on which teacher you have.”

Some teachers give an A for an 88 or 89 percent, while others require a 90 percent minimum.

Some teachers change their grading policies in subsequent years, either tightening or relaxing their rules, which can be infuriating for students who missed out on looser standards.

Others are arbitrary in their judgment in subjective subjects like essay writing or history projects.

If a teacher likes a student, that can make all the difference. If they are a student of color, that can work against them if a teacher has unconscious bias.

An 89 is recorded the same as an 80, with no distinction between a B+ and a B- when colleges look at transcripts.

What exactly is the difference between an 89 and a 90 percent? That one-percentage point can significantly affect a student’s grade point average – and can make or break their chances of getting into more desirable colleges.

And grades are often used by students themselves to define their self-worth.

The movement by some colleges to eliminate the SAT or ACT requirement in order to level the playing field between high- and low-income students (in principle a good idea) is fraught with peril if the alternative is to use only high school grades.

One solution some teachers recommend is to avoid the 100-point grading system and use a four-point standard.

However this issue evolves, it’s certain that changes are needed to make the grading system more fair, less arbitrary, and standardized within departments, schools and districts.

Test results; funding problems

Speaking of grades, another article in the Union-Tribune presented SD Unified’s recent test results. Although the headline read “SDUSD test scores are above larger districts,” I saw no reason to crow.

The percentage of SD Unified’s students who tested proficient in fourth-grade reading, fourth-grade math, eighth-grade reading and eighth-grade math were, respectively: 37 percent, 42 percent, 36 percent and 35 percent.

Although it’s true that these percentages are slightly higher than the numbers for California and the nation, there’s nothing to cheer about with these dismal results.

Numbers for English language learners and low-income students are even more bleak.

Enter Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who plans to address the broken funding system for public schools.

The state’s Local Control Funding Formula has failed in its mission to provide districts that have higher numbers of English language learners and low-income students with more money specifically targeted to their needs.

Instead, districts have commonly used the extra money to supplement their general funds. There has been little oversight of the process, and improvement in academic performance for struggling students has been negligible.

Weber should be lauded for making this one of her primary issues for 2020.

Local school performance

San Dieguito Union High School District’s School Accountability Report Cards show depressing test results for students with disabilities at all four of its comprehensive high schools.

English language learners and low-income students don’t fare much better.

For the 2017-2018 school year for 11th-graders, the results for the percentage of students who met or exceeded standards are shown in this chart.

The schools listed are Canyon Crest Academy (CCA), Torrey Pines High School (TP), San Dieguito Academy (SDA) and La Costa Canyon High School (LCC).

The two categories tested were English/Language Arts (ELA) and math.


Let’s hope school report cards will show better progress for the 2018-2019 school year.

New office project abandoned

After spending tens of thousands of dollars for a new district office feasibility study and on travel for district staff and select board members to tour district offices at other school districts, including Palm Springs, San Dieguito Union High School District decided late last year to abandon its plan to build a new district office.

Criticized for lack of transparency about its quiet intention to pursue this project, San Dieguito conceded the obvious: There was not enough money.

Supt. Robert Haley said last October that the money spent on the feasibility study was well worth it. “We’ll see where that takes us in the future, but for now we’ve got that thorough report and we learned a lot,” he said.

Although Haley tried to justify the expense in both dollars and staff time devoted to this boondoggle, the effort seems wasteful and pointless.

Worse yet, discussions with board members about constructing a new district office were hidden on agendas for months, eroding public trust.

The district’s business should always be conducted in the open, especially for major projects like a new district office that involve potentially millions of dollars.

Climate change walkout

With climate change becoming one of the most important issues of our time, and one particularly concerning for the younger generation, it was disappointing to learn that San Dieguito students were discouraged from participating in the global walkout on Sept. 20.

Massive local, statewide, national and international demonstrations to draw attention to the devastating effects of climate change were covered extensively by the media. But locally, San Dieguito students were no where to be seen.

In the first Youth Climate Strike that saw more than 1 million young people marching in protest, students across the globe walked out of school to demand action to fight the impending environmental crisis.

I asked SDUHSD Supt. Haley about this. In an email, he said, “For some time SDUHSD has not supported participation in walkouts. We try to channel our students’ energy in positive ways and keep them engaged in learning on campus.”

I would argue that marching to draw attention to the dangers of climate change is actually channeling their energy in a most positive way.

Haley said it would not be an excused absence for any student who missed class. There were mini-demonstrations at some SDUHSD schools, but they were on campus, short and supervised.

For one of the leading school districts in the county and state to keep its students under wraps, this was surprising. One would think we would be encouraging our young people, our future leaders, to be active in issues that will affect their future in profound ways.

In contrast, the San Diego Unified School District school board endorsed the walkout and gave students permission to participate. And the Sweetwater Union High School District in Chula Vista also passed a resolution supporting student involvement, according to the San Diego County Office of Education.

Led by young activist Greta Thunberg, the global strike demanding action on climate change was revolutionary. It’s too bad San Dieguito students were asked to stay in their classrooms and were denied the opportunity to raise their voices in support of this critical issue.

Maybe next time the district will encourage its young leaders to stand up, speak out, be heard and be seen, when an issue of such paramount importance presents itself.

Del Mar Heights fields

The controversy surrounding the modernization of Del Mar Heights School and the so-called “save-the-fields” faction continues to consume the attention of the school’s community.

As someone who lived two houses away from Del Mar Heights School for 20 years, I can attest to the decrepit physical condition of the school and the traffic mess occurring at school start and end times.

So something needed to be done.

After being asked to comment on the issue by those on both sides, I’ve declined, citing the excellent coverage this newspaper’s staff reporter, Karen Billing, has provided in presenting all viewpoints fairly and equitably.

Her reporting has been extensive and balanced, and readers can have confidence in the veracity of the coverage.

It’s important to note, however, that the quality of the teaching and learning going on at Del Mar Heights has never suffered. Standards that former Heights principal Wendy Wardlow established in her service there for nearly two decades have withstood the test of time.

The primary purpose of the school is to maintain that high level of instructional quality. Schools are for education ultimately, not for views or field space or parking.

Only compromise and civility can resolve this battle.

Opinion columnist and Sr. Education Writer Marsha Sutton can be reached at