Students cross the street in front of Lincoln High School on Oct. 23 2023.
Students cross the street in front of Lincoln High School on Oct. 23 2023. / Photo by Ariana Drehsler

At the School of Creative and Performing Arts, a magnet school that draws students from across the district, 96 percent of juniors passed science classes during the 2022-23 school year. At Lincoln High, 86 percent of students passed English classes. At Madison High, 85 percent passed math classes.

The scores should be reassuring. They seem to show most students at these three San Diego Unified high schools are excelling.

At the School of Creative and Performing Arts, however, only 16 percent of juniors met state science standards. At Lincoln only 23 percent met state English standards. At Madison, only 13 percent met math standards. Those are gaps of about 80, 63 and 72 percentage points respectively.

The disparities between test scores and grades are significant, according to an analysis by Planetcob. They also aren’t limited to certain schools. Across the district, wide gaps exist between the percentage of juniors passing classes and the percentage meeting state standards. Juniors’ grades were analyzed because they are the only high schoolers who take state standardized tests.

The results come as schools are still recovering from the pandemic. Concerns about new, looser grading standards are on the rise. San Diego Unified officials insist grades and tests scores measure different things. Still, parents may be receiving misleading messages about how well their kids are doing.

Students uniformly performed much better in classes than they did on standardized tests. At only one high school – and in only one subject – did more students meet state standards than passed classes. Though scores in all subjects differed significantly, math and science scores were particularly divergent.

The disparity in test scores and grades matches up with research performed by Dan Goldhaber, the director of the Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research.

In his work in Washington state, he’s found the relationship between test scores and grades has weakened over time, particularly during the pandemic when schools loosened grading requirements. Like in our analysis, those disparities are more acute in math. Simply put, it’s become relatively easier to get good grades, even as test scores have dropped.

“There are a sizable share of kids in the state that are getting good grades despite not meeting the state standards,” Goldhaber said.

Goldhaber cautioned that because of the messiness of the data, it’s hard to draw too many conclusions. Small groups of data can be misleading, as can proficiency thresholds. Additionally, because of the way San Diego Unified provided the data, about 7 percent of the grades received may not be from juniors. That means some of the grades analyzed were from students who did not take standardized tests, which could skew the comparison.

But he was struck by the gaps between the number of students passing classes and the number meeting standards on state tests. If test scores and grades differed by small margins that would be one thing, but 50, 60, 70 and 80 percentage-point disparities mean something.

“It’s hard to reconcile those numbers. They are so stark,” Goldhaber said.

One thing that may be at play is changes in how educators grade students’ performance. San Diego Unified is part of a wave of districts that have ushered in standards-based grading. It is meant to be less punitive and more equitable, especially for students from challenging backgrounds who’ve struggled in school. It places less emphasis on due dates and more on whether kids become proficient, often allowing students to make up assignments or retake tests.

Goldhaber’s seen similar grading changes firsthand. He has kids in middle and high school and they’re given plenty of opportunities to make up work. If students are learning something in the process, giving them opportunities to finish could be a good thing, he said. But it also may teach kids that they don’t need to work as hard to learn material. 

“Grades are one way that teachers establish expectations. If grading becomes very easy because of corrections, then that is effectively lowering expectations for kids,” Goldhaber said.

There is evidence that higher standards do benefit students, but what really worries Goldhaber is the message families may get when their child brings home good grades.

“If you look at the percentage of kids who failed to meet the state standard that are maybe told that they have A's or B's, that suggests a dichotomy between the signal that kids and parents are getting about their achievement and what the state tests are objectively saying about their achievement,” Goldhaber said.

San Diego Unified spokesperson Maureen Magee didn’t say whether district leaders were concerned about the gaps between grades and test scores. She did say the metrics represent different things, though.

Test scores reflect a student’s performance at a single moment in time, Magee wrote in an email. Grades, on the other hand, are an overview of a student’s progress and performance across factors like class participation, homework, projects and exams, she wrote.

“San Diego Unified's highly qualified teachers use their expertise to evaluate student learning through a range of formative and summative assessments, capturing a holistic picture of each student's progress, academic achievement levels, and needs,” Magee wrote.

“Grading practices are rooted in professional standards that emphasize the integration of diverse assessment methods, catering to diverse learning needs, and providing meaningful feedback to support student growth,” she wrote.

School board member Richard Barrera is skeptical of standardized tests and even questions if students should be tested at all in high school, when classes are less aligned with state standards and kids may care less about doing well on a test they know won’t affect their future. Still, he said, he doesn’t write them off.

“But I don't know that we could say because an 11th grader doesn't meet definitions of proficiency on state standardized tests that they in fact, are not proficient. I would generally trust a student's grades as a better way of demonstrating how well they know standards,” Barrera said.

Barrera shares Goldhaber’s concern about the message parents may be receiving when their kids come home with good grades. He’s seen kids do great in class but later feel like schools didn’t adequately prepare them. But he also thinks plenty of kids go to schools with large populations of disadvantaged students who may not do well on standardized tests, but succeed in college.

Grading should also reflect a student’s growth, Barrera said.

“If you're an English teacher or a math teacher at Hoover, you're dealing with most of the kids in your class coming from similar challenges, so at a certain level, you have to take students where they're at,” Barrera said. “If you were to basically through your grading ... say you've got to master (a topic) to pass a course and the result of that is 90 percent of your students are failing, you've got to address that, because that’s failing kids as well.”

Francine Maxwell, the former president of the San Diego chapter of the NAACP, has been an advocate for students in southeastern San Diego for decades. She said the community has long felt that San Diego Unified promotes kids up through grade levels without proof they understand the material .

Maxwell said those problems compound over the years, leading to high schoolers reading at elementary school levels. It also means students haven’t been guaranteed their right to an “equal and fair footing in education.”

Maxwell said new grading standards have only exacerbated the problem. Now, she said, students get an A for showing up. This can have dramatic consequences on students when they graduate from high school.

“There’s nothing like walking across that (graduation) stage and making your family proud and then going to college and thinking that that A or B (grade) was real and having to take remedial classes at the college level,” Maxwell said.

She said it often results in students dropping out.

“It breaks a person. It breaks a person at that young age to realize they have not been intentionally, authentically taught.”

Jakob McWhinney is Planetcob's education reporter. He can be reached by email at jakob@vosd.org and followed on Twitter @jakobmcwhinney. Subscribe...

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13 Comments

  1. The “dumbing down” of America continues. My grandaughter will get a 40% on a test (which is a “C” in the current grading process - would have been a “F” in my day). Then the teacher will review the test, showing all the answers, then she can retake the test. Not surprisingly she gets a 100% on the retake. She gets to keep the highest score. No wonder kids don't learn; they don't have to.

    1. Just curious: what makes you think your granddaughter isn't learning? Because she doesn't have to memorize the information on the first go-around? What's really the disadvantage of allowing a kid to retake a test as many times as they want until they learn the material?

  2. I appreciate the discussion around grading, but before we jump to conclusions regarding “dumbing down”, I encourage readers to learn a little more about the concept of standards based grading. Joe Feldman's “Grading For Equity” - chapter 7 shows how the the 0-100 grading scale is mathematically inaccurate. This learning may help expand our knowledge around the topic of grading.

  3. Many factors play into student performance on state tests, including whether students are motivated or feel that the test results have any consequences. In other words, students performance on state measures, may not aligned to their true abilities and can’t be necessarily considered reflection of their learning. It might be more valid to study how well students did on college entrance exams, such as SAT and ACT. Students generally will perform better when they see that the scores are relevant and have immediate consequences for their future.

  4. This appears to be a case of what used to be called “Grade Inflation.” The scores I'm used to seeing was 70 - 79 was a C, 80 - 89 was a B, 90 - 99 was an A. The highest possible GPA was a 4.0 and there were very, very few of those.

    It appears that independent testing is showing that our schools are “Cooking the Books.” Such grade inflation is a disservice to the kids because with they leave the district it turns out they don't really know the material and are set up for failure in college. There are legions of stories about kids who don't know how to make change or how to convert from fractions to decimals when working at a deli. Having a worthless diploma does no one any good.

  5. FYI: standards based grading does not mean the student earns an A for showing up as Dr Maxwell suggested. It means students earn an A for demonstrating proficiency and at the end of the day, that is what we want to see grades reflect.

  6. This author should be reprimanded or fired.

    The data is accurate. However, the new test scores will be out soon.

    This data is nearly a year old. Why didn't this guy write this article last fall, or wait until the new data comes out?

    Ineffective article.

  7. Next article by Jacob:

    “Padres collapse to a 82-80 record in 2023 performing below expectations ”

    Thanks Jacob for last years news.

  8. Yes, it is A BIG PROBLEM. A huge elephant in the room: Our children and our society i getting short-changed by an education establishment that does not even seem to acknowledge that there is a BIG GAP between WHAT WE ARE LEARNING IN SCHOOL and what is needed to survive and succeed in THE REAL WORLD. The growing complexities, opportunities and consequences we can already see seem to be farther and farther away from what our educators are willing to admit, work on, and get our children prepared for. We need to STOP FAKING EDUCATIONAL SUCCESS, improve both GRADES and TEST SCORES. We know IT IS POSSIBLE. We need to try harder and stop making up excuses......

  9. Grades like these are subjective, tests are objective. The disparity shows the standards for grades and perhaps pressure from SDUSD administration and charter school admins to provide unwarranted high grades need to be revisited. In addition the charter school(s) themselves need to be looked at and revamped. Obviously something is drastically wrong.

  10. Not surprising, many make excuses for the poor performance of the students. Try getting involved with your students' school, either through working with teachers or sports. You would be surprised at the difference it makes when parents actually support their kids and don't sit around making excuses for them.

  11. Lamont Jackson has been forging numbers long before he became superintendent of SDUSD.

    The ongoing investigation will hopefully uncover his numerous crimes as HR director, area superintendent and superintendent.

    After he became superintendent, SDUSD purposefully deleted many emails from their servers and claimed some kind of cybersecurity breach. All lies!

    There is a backup server and those emails can be recovered.

    Lamont Jackson got rid of a former principal of Lincoln High School over a decade ago at the time she was doing a great job changing the negative narratives of the school. Her name is Esther Omogbehin. The modus operandi was to use students to set up great educators and administrators, and file false accusations against them. Lamont Jackson, et al. even recruited the parents of students to accomplish their evil schemes.

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