To Dr. Michael Kirst,
Hello, I’m Carl Valdes from Redwood High school in the Tamalpais School district. Although both my school and district are in the top 35 in their rankings, I’m not here to praise them, I’m here to do the opposite. I’m writing to give you to give what my teachers call some friendly constructive criticism. I believe that for this to be effective though, one must throw out the rigid attitudes that come with formality, so if you’ll excuse my colloquial style, I’d like to share with you some of my concerns about today's education in California.
As a seasoned,seventeen year-old I’ve seen my fair share of tests, grades, and teachers. While being from some of the best schools in the state, I’ve got probably some of the best teaching there is in California, for public schools, but I believe that I have some ideas to which all students can relate. In our system today we use what's called the letter grade system, which uses an A-F grading level standard for most schools across the country. This was considered a step up from the pre-30’s era grading system that was purely numerical because of how much more “accurate” it was at tracking students progress. However, all this did was mask the statistical score of a student with a series of letters, instead of numbers. Here lies the problem; this change in education was made in the 40’s, which means that nothing has changed for over 70 years! That factory-like system was essentially created to be a machine that would take in the children of the post WW2 era and produce whatever people the economy needed, which at that time meant mostly lower class factory workers. This plan isn’t working anymore, and like bad study habits, it’s time for a change. For both the system and its standards too.
Another thing that must change is the student's attitudes towards grades. I’ve met more kids who care more about their grade than the things they’ve actually learned in class. Which is the exact opposite of what is supposed to happen. The final grade we receive at the end of the semester means more to us than anything a teacher could ever tell us in class. For me, I believe that the purpose of getting an education is to allow students to broaden their horizons and pursue whatever they’d like. Instead, students get tunnel vision on the singular letter, given to supposedly assess us on the material“learned” throughout the year. This narrow-minded focus on grades creates some of the most stress-filled situations in our young adult lives, which goes against the idea that school should be a safe learning environment. All this pressure does is, instead of turning the coal into diamonds, turns these diamonds into dust, which sadly causes many defeated students to take their lives. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, “suicide rates in adolescents have increased by 300% since the 1950s-1990s”, while, similarly, Patricia Davis found that there is a noticeable correlation between school failure and suicide rates in teens. These stressful situations instill in us the idea that we must work in a system to perform, just to impress a higher up, in this case a teacher, instead of learning within a system on how to better improve ourselves.
The idea that we should measure our students’ success seems to be getting increasingly more important every year the more global tests are published.e Also with the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, has solidified our obsession with gathering student data. The problem therein lies in the sentiment towards these numbers. When we treat our student’s grades like a sports player win percentage, our goal becomes blurred. While it seems obvious to give students an Olympic like grading system by awarding them certain tiers of awards based on achievement, it’s not always that simple. The difference between giving Usain Bolt a percentage based score after a race and giving a student a “gold medal” at the end of the semester lies in its effectiveness to accurately reflect the success. A student's progress is much more dynamic than the course an Olympic runner has to race on, the problem is people aren’t seeing the difference between them. So here’s where change needs to begin. Some schools have tried to adopt a seemingly gradeless system. In the Stanford law system what they did was eliminate the traditional grading system in favor of an honors, pass, restricted credit, and no credit. This allows the students to focus more on innovation and developing their skills instead of the points they’d accumulate in class.
Speaking of points accumulated in class, what if that idea was replaced entirely. If we were to toss out this old system for something new and just as effective, the problem wouldn’t be where to start, but where to look/ Somewhere else in the country may have discovered the way. One school in New Hampshire has decided to forfeit grade points almost entirely. At Sanborn High School, instead of grading kids with percentages and points, they assess the kids through ongoing projects and a checklist of skills. Teachers at Sanborn have named this teaching style “competency-based education.” This style allows kids to retake tests as much as they want as well as having teachers give written feedback to the kids throughout the year instead of giving them a letter grades on their report card. This style has been so successful that educators from around the country have come to see how they do it. Model schools like this show that we have the means to replace the letter grade system, which is exactly what we need. However, an argument can be made that it’s a lot easier and less time consuming for a teacher to give a student an A, B, or C instead of giving each individual student their own unique written feedback, or that life doesn’t give everyone a second chance. But, like as Gary Chu said, a teacher from Loyola University, “Life has plenty of redos, and that is the whole point: we learn, receive feedback to improve, and try again. A big part of gradeless classrooms is opportunities to fail in an effort to get better. There is no better place to teach failure as an opportunity than a classroom.”
So the question to answer now is, where to begin. I believe the first place to look is the California ED code. Article 3 General Provisions 49066 currently states that “the grade given to each pupil shall be the grade determined by the teacher of the course and the determination of the pupil’s grade by the teacher… shall be final.” This must change. Under this legislation, the only time a teacher has to write a written evaluation about a student is if they are going to make a change to said student's final grade. Instead, the thing that should actually change is this niche requirement. If the idea of a written evaluation was to replace the traditional letter grade would already be considered radical enough on its own, but why stop there. If the competency-based education system too could be at least be introduced to the state, it would already pave the way to solve a slew of problems. If this was to pass not only would this relieve many students of the burden living up to a number, but it changes the way kids would see school completely. The wild success of the New Hampshire plan should be our inspiration to change. California already has some of the best test scores in the nation, so if we could pull off this change it would surely set an example. But. it’ll only pass if it has someone as influential as yourself advocating for it. Even though its success has only been seen in a few schools, if even a sliver of its success could be reproduced, it would be the first radical educational reformation seen in decades.
I believe that to fix this problem in our grading system we must embrace the idea of a gradeless system. However, for such a revolutionary change like this to actually be successful, it’ll need the support of officials like you. That’s partially why I’m writing this letter about our grading system to you, because I know from personal experience that it’s easier for something to go down than to go up in our current school system. But I'm not asking for revolutionary changes to be made next week, I’m not asking for a reform campaign to start next month, I’m not even asking that you put these ideas on your to-do list tomorrow. All I ask is that you simply think about this idea, because I’m sure that I, along with the other millions of students in California, would be grateful for just the chance at change.