By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
The Education Code plainly states that teachers have the right to determine a student’s final grade. And that right was upheld recently when a Superior Court Judge ruled that administrators violated the law by changing the final grades of 89 students attending Central Valley High School in Ceres last year.
The grade changes were made months after teachers had submitted the grades and without the teachers’ consent.
Judge William A. Mayhew ruled in favor of the Ceres Unified Teachers Association (CUTA) and ordered the Ceres Unified School District to rescind its policy of changing final grades based on a standardized test scores or AP test results. The district was ordered to halt any further changes to students’ grades and to restore the final grades issued by teachers at Central Valley High School during the 2007-08 school year.
Changing grades based on test scores was adopted by the district as an “incentive” for students to try harder on tests. Grades were made higher — often increasing by as much as one letter — and never lowered. In some cases this meant the difference between passing a course with a D and failing with an F. In some instances it allowed athletes to continue playing sports, since the district only allows one F for those who play team sports.
Teachers learned that the new grading policy would be initiated when they were informed by their principal that he was sending a proposal to be approved by the superintendent. Teachers were then asked whether they wanted the policy to apply to one semester’s grade or to both. They were sent a consent form asking whether they would prefer to have clerical staff make changes to grades or change grades themselves. There was no option on the form to decline.
English teacher Susan Engstrom and social studies teacher Marilyn Wood refused to vote on whether the policy should be for one or two semesters — and also refused to sign the form — on the basis that the policy was illegal, based on Education Code section 49066, which states: “When grades are given for any course of instruction taught in a school district, 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, in the absence of clerical or mechanical mistake, fraud, bad faith, or incompetency, shall be final.”
The two CUTA members were ordered to meet with administrators and accused of insubordination and unprofessional conduct. Letters of reprimand were placed in their personnel files. But they refused to back down.
“The legal aspects were pretty black and white,” explains Engstrom. “And the law was created to prevent situations like this.”
But she objected for ethical reasons, too. She was afraid her students, many of whom are “at risk,” would not work as hard.
“I think it sent the wrong message to kids,” says Engstrom, who has been teaching for more than 20 years and is National Board certified. “The American work ethic is that we work toward a goal. This policy told students they could do nothing in class, and that if they passed the test they would pass the class. It reinforced the Lotto mentality: You can get a good grade on the test; you’ve hit the Lotto and you don’t have to do anything for the rest of the year. This policy didn’t take adolescent development into account.”
“I had a lot of sleepless nights,” admits Wood. “It’s not easy to go against what your superiors tell you to do. It goes against my nature. But I knew we were doing the right thing.”
Warnings were sent to district officials by CTA attorney Thomas Driscoll warning that the grade-changing policy was in violation of the Education Code and demanding that the district cease and desist from harassment of teachers who declined to implement the policy. In October 2008, both teachers became aware that some of their grades had been changed anyway — affecting a total of 89 students — so CTA legal staff filed a lawsuit on their behalf.
The judge concluded that test scores were not an “additional factor” in determining students’ grades but an actual revision of the grade — occurring four months after the end of the school year.
“I’m very pleased with the judge’s decision,” says Engstrom. “It was fair. Now kids will be sent the right message that they need to work toward a goal and that they have to come in every day and do a good job — not just do well on a test.”
“The judge made the decision that I knew would be made,” says Wood. “From reading the law, it became very clear that it was the only decision that could be made.”
The judge’s decision will have implications for students. Some may find that a lower grade could jeopardize college acceptance. Others who thought they had enough credits to graduate and did not attend summer school may find themselves without a diploma.
At this time, it is unknown whether the district will appeal the ruling.