Dominique Hayes teaches English to her 10th grade students at Lodestar, a charter school in East Oakland that hasn't given D grades since it opened in 2016. Credit: Amir Aziz

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More than 11,000 students graduated from Oakland Unified School District between 2015 and 2020. But only about half qualified for admission to California’s public four-year colleges. Could a modification to the district’s grading scale lead to more Oakland students going to college? 

Some education advocates think so. Because of a discrepancy between OUSD’s graduation requirements and what students must complete in high school to be eligible for admission to the University of California and California State University systems, scores of students each year earn a high school diploma from the district but can’t apply to those universities. 

“The ‘D’ grade, which at many high schools is a passing grade, gives students a false sense of accomplishment because it doesn’t count for college admission,” said Latora Baldridge, the principal of Lodestar, an East Oakland charter school that opened in 2016. 

To be eligible for CSU and UC schools, high school students must complete a series of classes called A-G courses, which include history, English, math, science, foreign language, visual and performing arts, and a college preparatory elective. In Oakland Unified, and in many other districts, earning a ‘D’ grade is considered passing the class and won’t prevent students from being able to graduate. But the UC and CSU systems define a passing grade as a C or better—meaning any student who receives a grade below that in an A-G course is automatically ineligible. 

As a result, OUSD officials are now considering making a change that would eliminate the ‘D’ as a passing grade across all high schools, with a goal of increasing A-G completion and college-going rates, especially among Black and brown students. 

During the 2019-2020 school year, 38% of Black graduates, 52% of Latino graduates, and 39% of Pacific Islander graduates completed all their A-G courses with a C or better. White and Asian students had rates of 72% and 78%, respectively. In 2018, the latest year for which data is available, 31% of OUSD graduates enrolled in a four-year university within one year after high school, 30% enrolled at a two-year college, and nearly 40% did neither.

But “dumping the D,” as some call it, is about more than a letter grade, said Matin Abdel-Qawi, OUSD’s high school superintendent. 

“What’s equally as important as not allowing scholars to get Ds is providing schools with the resources so scholars can get the additional support if they’re in jeopardy of failing a course, so they can demonstrate mastery at a minimum at the C level,” Abdel-Qawi said. 

The district is considering several options: removing the D as a grade altogether, and defining any score below a 70 as failing; lowering the threshold for a C to a score of 65, with anything below that as failing; or offering a grade of “Incomplete” if students don’t earn an A, B, or C using traditional grading scores. 

Beyond the letter-grade changes, any new “dump the D” policy would include early intervention strategies for students at risk of earning a failing or an incomplete grade, and provide opportunities and extra chances for them to earn a higher mark before it goes on their transcripts. 

A few OUSD schools, including Life Academy and Coliseum College Prep Academy, have similar policies, along with several charter schools, which have more independence than OUSD schools. At Lodestar, part of the Lighthouse Community Public Schools charter network, students can receive an A, B, C, or “not passing” grade. Teachers there also hold office hours after school that students in danger of not passing can use to make up their work and complete missing assignments. 

Dominique Hayes teaches 10th grade English at Lodestar, and said that aligning the grading policy with college eligibility requirements helps motivate students, especially those who may not start high school with college as their goal. 

“Those are the ones we really work with and sit down to have one-on-ones with, to tell them, ‘This is within your reach and these are the things you have to do to get there,’” she said. “It’s not allowing them to accept or D or think that’s okay, even if it is considered at some schools as passing. We want them to always maintain and keep high standards for themselves.” 

At LPS Oakland R&D, a charter high school that shares a campus with Castlemont High School, if any student earns less than a 70 in a class, they receive a mark of “incomplete.” They have multiple chances for credit recovery before the end of the semester, including during Thanksgiving break, winter break, and summer school. 

In 2020, 91% of the school’s graduates completed their A-G courses with a C or higher. Of those, 56% enrolled in a four-year university, and 39% enrolled in a two-year college. 

On top of the different grading rubric, the lowest grade that students at LPS can earn on an individual assignment is a 50%, not a zero. That makes it less difficult for students to pull their grades up to a 70 than if they had a 0 for the assignment, principal Toniesha Webb said. 

“That doesn’t mean they don’t have to go back and do it, but that they have a shorter distance to climb out of the hole,” she said. “We have to push them to get the A-G completion grade. It’s not just, we’re going to take the D out and have a bunch more kids failing, but what is that extra step to help students get across the finish line?”

That districts like OUSD are considering dropping the D as a passing grade is a good thing, Webb said. Allowing school districts to graduate students who are immediately ineligible for four-year colleges directly affects their trajectory, she added. 

Abdel-Qawi, OUSD’s high school superintendent, said one of the more difficult aspects for students with the current model is finding time to make up their classes, and changing their mindsets after they get a D in a class. 

“In their minds, they passed. That often happens in the lower grades when they’re not as college-focused as they are in junior or senior year,” he said. “If we had pushed harder or didn’t have the D, they ideally would have passed with a C and met the A-G requirements.”

A “dump the D” policy at OUSD would also involve educating students and families about the A-G class requirements from the start of high school, so that they aren’t surprised during junior or senior year when they start thinking about college admissions. 

Shakila Zuberi lives in West Oakland with her family and goes to Millennium High School in Piedmont, an alternative school. Her older brother, who attended McClymonds High School, was at risk of not graduating because he was missing so many credits, she said. 

“I was actually scared for him because he wasn’t going to get his diploma. I feel like that happens to too many students,” she said. 

A teacher eventually informed her brother, who was able to catch up and graduate. But that experience led Shakila’s parents to seek out a different school for her, where teachers and school staff were more prudent about staying on track, she said. At Millennium High, Shakila learned from the beginning of her freshman year about what’s required to attend UC and CSU schools. Students also have extra class periods to make up missing assignments, which helped Shakila when she missed a week of school earlier this year. 

A ninth-grader, Shakila is now a member of Energy Convertors, a student advocacy group that has been campaigning to dump the D. After surveying more than 400 other Oakland students earlier this year, the group found that half didn’t know what the A-G requirements were, fewer than half had had an adult walk them through the requirements, and fewer than that knew how to check their transcripts to see if they were on track for college. 

“There needs to be more of a support system for students. It’s unfair that students aren’t getting an actual chance to prove themselves because they’re just getting passed on,” she said. “I know that I can go to my teachers and have a dedicated time for me to get caught up on whatever I might be behind on.”

One suggestion that the Energy Converters came up with is a “traffic light” warning system that could be put at the top of student report cards and transcripts: a green mark would mean they’re on track, yellow would indicate they’re at risk of not passing one or two classes, and a red mark would mean they’re in danger of not passing more than two. 

Abdel-Qawi’s goal is to present a preliminary plan to the school board and superintendent in early spring for feedback, and then bring back a final draft by March. That way, the new grading system can be implemented for the 2022-2023 school year across all OUSD high schools. 

The district is planning to hold focus groups with principals, teachers, parents, and students about modifying the grading system, Abdel-Qawi said. One concern he’s heard is that removing the D or making it a non-passing grade could lead to more students failing if that’s the best they can do. Some, he said, have also questioned whether all students should be pushed to meet requirements for a four-year college if not all of them are interested in going. Abdel-Qawi has a simple response to that. 

“Very few careers exist that don’t need this same skill set,” he said of the A-G requirements. “Even if you’re going to the skilled trades, (career and technical education), or junior college, every scholar benefits from being college eligible, whether they want to go to college or not.”

Ashley McBride reports on education equity for The Oaklandside. She covered the 2019 Oakland Unified School District teachers’ strike as a breaking news reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle. More recently, she was an education reporter for the San Antonio Express-News where she covered several local school districts, charter schools, and the community college system. McBride earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University, has held positions at the Palm Beach Post and the Poynter Institute, and is a recent Hearst Journalism Fellow.