The San Diego school district released data showing that minority students receive far more D and F grades than their white counterparts.

During the first semester of last year, 30% of all D or F grades were given to English learners. One in four, 25%, of failing marks went to students with disabilities.

By ethnicity, 23% went to Native Americans. Another 23% of failing grades went to Hispanics. And 20% of D or F grades went to Black students.

By comparison, just 7% of failing marks went to White students.

It actually makes a lot of sense that English learners, i.e. people who don’t speak English as a first language, have far more D and F grades than people who grew up speaking English. I’m not sure why that comes as a surprise to anyone. If students can’t understand what they’re being taught in class, it makes it harder for them to keep up.

I don’t know what accounts for the higher percentage of minority students receiving poor grades than white students but I think we get a hint what the district things is the problem from the details of the new grading plan. The new system doesn’t rely on grade averages throughout the year or turning in work on time:

Academic grades will now focus on mastery of the material, not a yearly average, which board members say penalizes students who get a slow start, or who struggle at points throughout the year.

Another big change, teachers can no longer consider non-material factors when grading. Things like turning work in on time and classroom behavior will now instead count towards a student’s citizenship grade, not their academic grade.

Under this system it doesn’t really matter what you did or didn’t do throughout the course so long as you can show mastery of the required material in the end. So working backwards from this, it seems the district believes turning in work on time is a problem for minority students.

One easy way to get a D or F in a class is to not do the work. If 93% of the white students are turning the work in on time and only 80% of black students are doing the same, that’s obviously going to be reflected in the low grades given to each group. But that’s how grading is supposed to work.

At least that’s how it used to work.

Reason’s Robby Soave points to a document outlining the new approach in San Diego which states that, under the new system, even class attendance no longer matters:

The new approach—which is rather confusingly written—still includes letter grades, but these will reflect student’s “mastery” of the subject rather than their completion of homework, quizzes, and tests. What constitutes mastery is left unexplained. Grades “shall not be influenced by behavior or factors that directly measure students’ knowledge and skills in the content area,” which sounds like a recipe for highly subjective grading. And a great deal of leniency will now be given to students who don’t do the work for a course, including those who don’t show up at all: Attendance can no longer be a factor in grading.

Looking at the document, it seems it will now be all but impossible to get an F, which is now defined as “Little to no progress towards meeting content-area
standards.” So if you’ve done anything at all, you can get a D in the class and getting a C only requires “Approaching content-area standards.” What defines approaching? It’s not really clear.

It will be interesting to see how teachers actually implement this new plan. Will they still give homework if turning in homework no longer counts toward a final grade? Will they give semester-end tests (finals) and if so will the finals effectively decide the grade? It’s all a bit vague and I suspect that’s the point. The new system seems to allow for teachers to play a bigger role in grading. Students’ work ethic, behavior and attendance in class are no longer part of the equation.