Mark McDermott

MCHS Social Studies teachers enact easier grading scale to counter summer school scores

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Mira Costa Social Studies Department co-chair Adam Geczi and English teacher Shawn Chen, who also is the head of the MBUSD teachers association. Photo by Kevin Cody

by Mark McDermott

The Mira Costa High School social science department last week announced an unusual policy change, implementing a new grading scale intended to make it easier for students to obtain higher grades with lower classwork scores.

According to the new policy, which will go into effect this semester and was adopted in a nearly unanimous vote by the teachers in the social studies department, students scoring as low as 78 percent in classwork will obtain an A minus, while those scoring as low as 67 percent will score a B minus. Traditionally, A grades have required a 90 percent or higher score and B grades an 80 or higher score. (See accompanying chart).

The move came in response to a burgeoning curriculum offered by outside organizations,  including the Halstrom Academy, the Fusion Academy, and particularly the parent-run, non-profit MB/X Foundation, which just last week announced major additions to its popular summer school class offerings.

Mira Costa does not offer summer school and accredits coursework taken through MB/X, Halstrom Academy and Fusion Academy.

MCHS social studies and history teachers contend these privately run schools lack sufficient rigor and thus represent a way for students to essentially buy higher grades, thereby creating inequity for students who cannot afford to take the privately offered courses.

“The ability of the Mira Costa social science department to properly fulfill our responsibilities to our students has been negatively impacted by a series of MBUSD administrative decisions to support open enrollment in MB/X summer school and the unquestioning acceptance of alternative course work and transfer grades,” the teachers said in a statement released last week. “The social sciences continue to be vital for teaching citizenship and critical thinking, and teachers in the department are recognized as some of the top educators in the state of California. It is therefore essential that Mira Costa students be enrolled in Mira Costa courses in core subject areas.”

Department co-chair Adam Geczi said that the privately offered classes have especially impacted social studies because many students take those classes during the summer in order to free up time for “cadillac electives” they otherwise would not have time for, such as robotics and choir.

“That results in about a third of the graduating class never having taken social studies at Mira Costa High School,” Geczi said. “From an educational point of view, that undermines core curriculum and standards…You begin to have two different tracks in the public school system, one that caters to students who can afford to buy their way out of mandated education, and buy their way into a differentiated education that is filled with opportunities other kids don’t have.”

The teachers’ statement said that 96.25 percent of students taking courses from MB/X summer school or the other alternative institutions received either an A or B. The intention of the new grading system is to create a more level playing field for students who do not take classes from those outside institutions.

“Although a significant adjustment has been made to the grading scale, teaching practices will not change and students will receive a richer and more meaningful educational experience than alternative courses can offer without incurring a grade penalty associated with Manhattan Beach public education,” the teachers wrote. “Furthermore, this change will restore grade equity for those students without the financial means to access these alternative options for initial credit. These students are increasingly harmed by the disadvantages posed by an inflated grade distribution on Mira Costa transcripts, which are tacitly approved by MBUSD.”

“The increase in students taking summer school history, essentially purchasing ‘A’ grades, has impacted the integrity of the Mira Costa transcript,” English teacher Shawn Chen, who is also the head of the MBUSD teachers association, told student paper La Vista. “The [new grading scale] allows teachers to maintain the integrity of their grading procedures [and] students will continue to be assessed based on mastery of the material.”

The traditional grading scale compared to the scale adopted by the Mira Costa Social Studies/History Department. Graph by Bev Baird

Teachers voted 13-0 in favor of the new grading system, with one abstaining, according to Geczi. He said teachers have asked district administration and the Board of Education to address the issue for more than a decade, to no avail. Previously no formal grading system was in place, although the traditional system in which 90-100 is an A, 80-89 is a B, and 70 to 79 is a C was informally accepted as policy, according go Geczi. The teachers’ policy change is in keeping with state educational code, Geczi said; the policy change does not force teachers to use the new grading scale but instead suggests it.

“This has been a concern within the district for 15 years. [District leadership] has refused to address it,” Geczi said. “It came to a point where we had to take action. We have to make sure students have grade equity. It’s our duty to them.”

The last straw was MB/X’s announcement of a new summer school program last week, called MB Flex, which mimics the other alternative schools in providing teacher-to-student ratios of one-to-one, one-to-two, and one-to-three and costs $4,500, $2,400, and $1,600, respectively, for a two summer semester course. Students are able to create their own summer school schedule through the Flex program. A regular MB/X summer school class, with approximately 25 students, is $550.

MB/X executive director Jennifer Williams flatly rejected the notion that any of the foundation’s classes have easier grading, suggesting that perhaps the summer school environment —  and the fact that students have less of a course load during summers —  may improve scores.

“Not all of our kids get A’s and B’s,” she said. “It’s not anywhere near 96.2 percent. Maybe the other schools, but not ours.”

She said MB/X employs Mira Costa teachers for the classes whenever possible, as well as a MCHS administrator, in an attempt to make the classes cohere with the high school’s standards.

“We do everything we can to make sure the program we are offering and the educational product we are delivering —  when that grade is put on a Mira Costa transcript, it is reflective of what Mira Costa expects in a class,” Williams said, noting that Geczi has been one of MB/X’s summer school teachers. “And I’d say being as close as we are to Mira Costa, we do a pretty good job of it.”

Geczi said his experience teaching at MB/X’s summer school was that teachers are indeed expected to provide higher grades.

“I can’t grade the same way I do at Mira Costa, otherwise I would not be rehired,” Geczi said. He alleged that a colleague was let go for this very reason. “If I give out too many C’s, I get called into the office. Kids shop; if they have to go elsewhere to get higher grades, they will. MB/X doesn’t want that. They want a paying customer.”

Wyatt Robb, a senior at Mira Costa and the editor-in-chief of La Vista said the student body was “divided” over the grading decision. He said students excelling in STEM disciplines were those most likely to be upset. According to an Instagram poll the newspaper conducted, students were almost evenly divided on the plan.

Robb himself took chemistry at Fusion Academy over the summer, and described it as “pretty easy.” He said that, because of the cost of the courses, there was an expectation among both students and the parents who typically pay for the courses that they would not be graded as harshly as a traditional class.
“I think it’s well known that getting an ‘A’ at Fusion or Halstrom is pretty achievable,” Robb said.

Sam Buchda graduated from Costa last year, and took multiple social studies courses over the summer. At MB/X, he took world history the summer before his sophomore year, and U.S. history the summer before his junior year. In the summer before his senior year, MB/X courses in honors government and honors economics conflicted with a volunteering opportunity he was pursuing, so he took the courses at Fusion.

“As much as I want to say that they are comparable to regular classes…They’re not dumbed down, they were just way easier to handle than a history course at Costa. I was getting high A’s and putting in comparatively little effort,” Buchda said.

While the MB/X courses took place in a traditional classroom setting, Buchda compared the Fusion experience to homeschooling. He received one-on-one instruction, and attended class for about two hours a day, Monday through Thursday. Nonetheless, Buchda said he came away “pleased with the level of understanding” that he got from the courses. He was admitted to USC as an economics major, and will begin studying at the L.A. campus after spending his first year studying in Rome.

MB/X is closely affiliated with MBUSD. Its mission is largely as a counterpart to the Manhattan Beach Educational Foundation, providing funding “beyond the classroom” for the chronically underfunded public school district. The foundation has provided nearly $5 million in grants, mostly for athletic facilities, in its 17 year history.

Williams said MB/X has increasingly expanded its summer school programs to meet student needs. She said she was sympathetic to the social studies teachers’ concerns but that MB/X likewise has a duty to students.

“Let’s talk about why kids are actually taking summer school, and why did MB/X summer school exist in the first place —  we would not exist if we were not needed,” Williams said. “We are a non-profit. We are not here for any other purpose other than to meet the needs of the students.”

Williams said 1,200 students attended MB/X summer school last year, with about 500 of those taking social studies courses. The school district itself, she noted, does not have funding to operate summer school. Williams said in an ideal world, all summer school would be free to students, but that in order for MB/X to provide the service, the program must fund itself. She said the new MB Flex program was simply responding to what students want —  as Geczi noted, “Students vote with their feet,” and students were increasingly attending alternative academies’ programs that featured more flexibility and lower teacher ratios. MB/X, which derives much of its overall funding from its class offerings, saw an exodus of more than 400 students to the smaller academies and thus began offering another tier of classes.

“Frankly, because we saw so many kids going to Halstrom and Fusion for that one educational product, we thought, ‘If they can do it, we can certainly do it, too, with a program much closer to Mira Costa and more closely aligned with what the school expects,” Williams said.

Williams suggested the entire issue should also be looked at in a larger context —  the intense pressures students now feel they are under to obtain A’s and to build their transcripts in order to succeed in the highly competitive college application process.

Grade inflation is also an issue at Mira Costa, where 83 percent of students have a 3.0 (B) or higher GPA, Geczi said. It’s something he and Williams agree upon.

“The pressure students have to get A’s is about getting into college, and the perception is that you must have all A’s,” Williams said. “There is so much pressure to get into a UC school, which are so competitive, and it does put undue pressure on kids. The reality is there is somewhere for everybody, even if you don’t get all A’s and B’s. But the kids don’t know that, and some parents don’t know that, either. That is probably the bigger conversation.”

Mira Costa Principal Ben Dale said this is a conversation that is ongoing among educators. He said distilling 20 weeks of a student’s work — a semester in the regular school year —  to a single letter is one of the biggest challenges any teacher faces. He posed a scenario in which a student puts in 10 weeks of great work, then faces a sickness or a family crisis and falters during the second ten weeks.

“So what grade does that student deserve? An F?” Dale asked.  “Does that F accurately represent the student’s performance? Well, not really —  it only represents the second half.”

He acknowledged that the social studies teachers’ policy change had touched on something that needs to be addressed.

“I do think we need to adopt a policy,” Dale said. “We have to balance access and rigor, and I like kids to have options and some variety in their education. It’s not anybody’s fault but the system’s. We have too many boxes to check….I mean, a a class comes along a student really wants to take and they can’t because it doesn’t fit in the box that has been set up. So we have to have a system that allows some flexibility.”

That said, Dale disagrees with the teachers’ new grading system; he believes it will reward work undeserving of high grades. He said he hopes that realization will sink in as the grading system is actually applied.

“I am hoping we realize it at the end of the school year and say, ‘You know, 79 percent is not outstanding work,” Dale said.

“We talk about these issues all the time, but usually not so publically,” Dale said. “So we will spend the spring talking about it, apparently.”

Ryan McDonald provided reporting for this story.

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