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Students Wonder if d.tech Grading is too Easy

By: Emily Hom

Are d.tech classes graded fairly?

Photo by Evan Tung

For most high school students, achieving good grades is as stressful and scary as today’s political climate. But for d.tech students, this level of anxiety about grades would seem almost comical given their light workload. A school-wide survey by d.tech last semester measured that 88 percent of students believe that d.tech is a “safe learning environment and according to 86 percent, an inclusive learning environment. However, the same level of positive response was not mirrored in opinions about d.tech’s academic courses. Only 63 percent of students feel that d.tech courses are challenging, and just 59 percent believe that d.tech promotes college readiness. So, what is it about d.tech classes that leaves students so unsure about their academic rigor and future college applications, and are these worries justified?  

Perhaps it has something to do with d.tech’s assessment of student learning — grades. d.tech’s mission is to encourage independent exploration by limiting stress related to homework and grades. It has inspired many students to venture outside the classroom to work on their own self-directed curiosity projects and pursue their passions, such as planning international service trips, filing patent applications, attending world-class athletic competitions, and more. Junior Yohanna Konardi says, “I can focus on projects I’m more interested in” because she doesn’t have to spend as much time on homework. The question is, does limiting stress related to coursework and grading have any negative consequences?

When asked about how hard he has to work in class to get an A, freshman Nathan Wilson said that “honestly most classes are kind of easy, but it depends on where you are in the class because everyone picks up at different paces.” Freshman Matthew Sydoruk said that d.tech classes “aren’t very hard” and are “easier than when I was in middle school.” Senior Robert McGugan took the perspective that “you have to work hard and put in a reasonable amount of effort, you have to try, you can’t just sit there and do nothing.”

In response to the school-wide survey and recognition of concerns about class difficulty and college readiness, d.tech Director of Learning, Nicole Cerra, responded that “most high school students in America are trained to think that challenge means a lot of work,” and that d.tech is hoping to “redefine what being challenged means for students.” Because incoming d.tech students come from primarily traditional schools where they are afforded much less freedom, moving to d.tech and learning to support themselves can uncomfortable in and of itself. Cerra commented that at d.tech “we are trying to challenge students to take all of the opportunities d.tech offers and create something that is meaningful and important,” and that it is challenging for most students to learn to “be self-directed in pursuing something that won’t necessarily be reflected on their transcript.”

d.tech’s inspiring goal to create an environment that teaches students to take control of their own future and discover their passions through experiential learning is one that many hope to see reflected in institutions across America, but the fact remains that, at least for now, what is “reflected on [a] transcript” still drives college and graduate school admission processes. Ms. Anderson, junior and senior English teacher, believes that a grade should reflect “the work that the student puts into it, like how hard they worked on it, the level of excellence they reached, and how well they met the learning goals.” Mr. Lonnemann, senior Government teacher, has similar thoughts and said “I don’t like traditional grades, ideally grades would focus on student growth in the class because everyone’s coming from different backgrounds.” It’s clear that d.tech teachers believe that grades should assess a student’s understanding of the material and the work put into it. Algebra teacher Freedom Cheteni says he has students create a plan of action in his class, then grades them based on “if they reach competency in areas that they are focussing on in their own plan.”

Sophomore Victor Russell said that he believes d.tech grades accurately assess his understanding and effort, and that it’s “pretty important that we have the opportunity to fix our mistakes if we mess up.” Junior Yohanna Konardi believes that her grades accurately assess her understanding but not so much her effort, and explained that “d.tech classes aren’t that challenging” so students often quickly understand a lesson and then don’t have to work too hard on homework and tests. Junior Lauren Shannon even admitted that “sometimes I feel like don’t deserve to pass or I didn’t do a good enough job.”

This common agreement among students that good grades at d.tech aren’t especially difficult to accomplish, raises an interesting question about the possibility of grade inflation at d.tech, and whether it is an issue. Wilson said that because it’s easier to get an A at d.tech, it “definitely lowers the bar for how much effort each students puts into their work.” Sydoruk agrees, saying  “A’s don’t mean as much because so many people get them.” However, senior Roshni Jariwala had a different take, replying “no, I don’t” have any concerns about the possibility of grade inflation at d.tech because “Even though some people get good grades easily, a lot of students fail classes too. I feel like it depends on how self-directed you are.”

Ms. Hu, freshman and sophomore English teacher, offered her perspective, saying that she doesn’t believe students ever receive A’s or B’s for undeserving work but that “compassionate C’s are given” to help students pass. However, this theory doesn’t address all of the student concerns about d.tech grading. Ms. Anderson and Mr. Lonnemann had some specific critiques of d.tech’s unique grading system. Ms. Anderson said that “sometimes I am uncomfortable that the grading is skewed towards Performance Tasks, which can reward only working on a couple big projects,” and Mr. Lonnemann said that with the ability to make multiple revisions comes with “students asking teachers for a bunch of revisions to the point that they are more likely to give them a better grade.”

Because of d.tech’s less traditional classes and grading system some students are concerned that come college, they won’t be prepared. Senior Robert McGugan said that the “only thing [he’s] worried about is the timing, because d.tech deadlines aren’t as strict.” Konnardi expressed a similar concern in response saying “They’re training us to be okay with not trying as hard and failing on the first try cause we can just revise our work.”

Though some students are concerned with d.tech’s easy classes, they can take some solace in the results of d.tech student testing scores. d.tech’s average SAT score for the 2018 graduating class, 1225, is actually higher than both the district (1213) and state (1065) averages. The 10th and 11th graders also scored higher than the San Mateo High School Union District average on the 2017 PSAT. These test scores are certainly encouraging and a positive reflection of d.tech classes and students. Concerning the relatively easy classes that d.tech offers, Ella Rook, “Yes our classes are easy, but to me it is because learning is meant to be challenging in a fun way. Just because we don’t have hours of homework, and aren’t inundated with stress, doesn’t mean we aren’t learning.”

Nonetheless, possible future consequences from d.tech grading can only be discovered after its first graduating class has their college experience. Cerra expressed that the survey statistics “are not acceptable,” and that “grading and assessment policy is something we talk a lot about as a staff because we don’t think it’s perfect,” but that “we believe it does encourage deeper learning and is something we hope to improve over time.” d.tech’s dedication to working with students to better design a 21st cCentury education experience is a prominent aspect of the d.tech mission, and as future generations of Dragons make d.tech their home, d.tech can continue to refine a grading system that nurtures the skills students need to succeed.

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