Parents speak out against switch to pass/fail grades

Daily Post Staff Writer

Palo Alto parents said yesterday that the school board should have had an open process with a vote rather than letting Superintendent Don Austin switch the district from letter grades to pass/fail.

Austin defended the move at last night’s board meeting. He said colleges have said they understand the unique circumstances students face this semester with schools closed because of the coronavirus shutdown and won’t hold pass/fail grades against applicants.

He said pass/fail grades are fairer to students who don’t have good internet access or lack tutors.

Still some parents aren’t happy about it.

Steve Toteda, who helped start a petition with over 500 signatures of people against the pass/fail policy, said the school board has a responsibility to make decisions on the record rather than having the superintendent make major changes unilaterally.

Karen Hickey said representatives from a virtual college panel she participated on said they are still looking for academic rigor and improvement. She said the change to pass/fail made her junior daughter feel like the effort she has put in this semester to improve her grades had been a waste. Hickey said she wants the district to think of other ways, including teacher recommendations, to help students show their academic improvement.

Charu Gupta likened the rollout of the new policy to how the first pancake never turns out quite right. She said students face deadlines every week but they have to teach themselves the material. She said even hardworking students are worried about not passing. She said the board needs to study its options and take a vote so each board member is accountable for their decision.

Assistant Superintendent Sharon Ofek said that if a student is failing, the teacher and other school employees will provide the same assistance to that student as they would if the letter grade system were in effect.

Mudita Jain said the pass/fail policy is bad for kids who are trying to show an improvement in their track records. She said her daughter, who is now a senior, got Bs first semester her junior year and worked hard to show a big improvement during the spring semester. She said current juniors won’t get that chance. Jain also said grades provide students with motivation to work.

Teachers who spoke last night said they supported the switch to pass/fail grades.

Paly teacher and parent David Cohen said there is no way to avoid any negative impact but the pass/fail policy is best for reducing students’ stress.

Teri Baldwin, president of the teachers union, said letter graders would increase stress and inequality among students.

Board members stood by Austin’s the decision.

Board member Melissa Baten Caswell said children from poorer families are not the only kids struggling now. She said children of essential workers like doctors are worried about their families and have less oversight. She said other kids are having internet issues because with several members of the home online at the same time, the connections slow down. She said the district isn’t trying to fail lots of kids, rather they went to pass/fail to ease stress and support students.

Editor’s note: The comments from Karen Hickey have been revised to better reflect her comments to the board.


  1. I don’t like this new system of the board ducking issues by passing the buck to the superintendent. Let’s hope there are good candidates who will run this fall. This board needs new blood.

    • Yes it was so much better when the board argued into the middle of the night and spent months and years on little issues while ignoring the big ones. That was way better for students. Why have a trained professional educator make decisions, when you can have a bunch of part-time volunteers, driven by hyperactive parents, do it instead?

  2. It looks to me that the teachers union is pulling the strings. They got an MOU that exempts them from evaluations. Then to make things even easier on them, they switched to pass/fail without asking parents or students. It’s like this new superintendent has been cowed by the teachers union, and he doesn’t care what anybody else says. PAUSD goes from one disaster to the next.

    • Please explain why you would still want to have your children here if it’s such a disaster? They are all still getting into those coveted top tier schools. They aren’t killing themselves on the tracks like they used to. The teachers are still working individually with students, and actually working more with individual students than before. But hey, this is easy on the teachers, right?

      • I’m not “send in the clowns,” but let me respond. You ask why I would still want my kids here if it’s such a disaster. I live here and I pay taxes and I have the right to expect more than what this district provides. You sound like an administrator or teachers union leader. That’s fine. You should be striving to improve things, not giving teachers an easy “out” with pass/fail. Why did these kids work so hard to get good grades when you and your pals decided to take the easy way out and eliminate letter grades. And if you’re proud of this decision, why did you try to slip it by the public in the MOU rather than putting the issue clearly on the board’s agenda and inviting the public to comment? A candidate ran for school board a couple of years ago (I think it was Dauber) with the slogan “We can do better”. That’s when he was trying to get rid of Kevin Skelly as superintendent. Dauber’s now gotten rid of two superintendents and things are still a joke. Anyway, nobody is trying to do better. Pass/Fail is just a way of starting teachers’ summer vacation early.

        • I’m neither an administrator, teacher or union rep. I am a parent in the district, and a lifelong bay area resident. As a parent, I see how teachers are actually reaching out more than before to check in on my children’s well being. Thank you for directly attacking me and showing the kind of parents that are in my community. You are making statements without showing concrete evidence of how this is a disaster. Most school districts have gone to pass/fail on the peninsula, have you taken issue yet with the county superintendent as she supports pass/fail during this time of crisis?

  3. I’m deeply concerned about the District’s process. I see 3 problems:

    1. I listened to the 3/17 meeting and went back and re-listened to the discussion about Emergency Powers.

    At roughly 1:26:12 Don Austin says ” This is something it would be exceedingly rare to be doing things outside of process and weren’t completely necessary and time sensitive to the point where even calling a special board meeting wasn’t an option.”

    There was absolutely time to call a special board meeting. That was the standard. It was not met.

    2. In addition, neither the Board nor the Superintendent gave an analysis of the State Guidelines, as suggested by the State.

    3. The overriding State theme is no harm. But the Superintendent made it clear that his goal was only as solution for the 10% who are not doing well. Yet, this tradeoff is not no harm. I don’t have time to re-listen to the last meeting now, but roughly he said “The 10% are our priority and expect that some kids will be hurt by that.”

    I expect our Government and our District to be data driven (timely regular surveys in this difficult time), transparent, and lifting up all students.

  4. @clowns – Pausd is a disaster. And it’s due to the teacher’s union, which protects bad teachers and policies that do not serve students. Please vote a big NO on the parcel tax. Maybe then the teachers’union will agree to teachers instructing students

    • I see that you are voicing an opinion without mentioning any facts. Care to actually give factual evidence how it is a disaster? Are students not graduating? Are they not getting into college? Do they not have enough variety in elective classes or extra curricular activities? What makes it a disaster?

  5. @clowns – Pausd is a disaster. And it’s due to the teacher’s union, which protects bad teachers and policies that do not serve students. Please vote a big NO on the parcel tax. Maybe then the teachers’union will agree to teachers actually instructing students.

  6. @clown – yes, you all are cheating on your graduation rates. Why is it that only 40% of SED students are proficient in ELA and Math in the state CAASPP test, yet PAUSD has an 86% graduation rate? Yeah – trumpet that you are graduating kids who aren’t proficient. Sure graduate kids with Ds who have no skills and no future. But make sure you cash your paycheck!

    VOTE NO on the parcel tax!

    • I appreciate your reply. I agree about these kids not having skills. High school doesn’t teach skills anymore. High school is set up to pass tests and get into college. High school in general in the United States is a joke. Not everyone should be steered towards college, yet that is what the system is designed to do. Kids that aren’t college bound because the United Stated education system is flawed. The district is following the lead of the county and State, so maybe instead of focusing directly on PAUSD we should be looking higher up the food chain? When it comes to education at least?

  7. It’s a disaster b/c the organization is run to benefit the teachers and not the students. That’s why PAUSD generally has no synchronous learning, or recorded lectures that students can view, and why no classes are being held to the previous schedule and why an MOU with the teacher’s union determines our kids’ grading policy. No accountability whatsoever for teachers, and students teach themselves. Impossible to fire a teacher due to collective bargaining agreements – rather than looking out for students. Thank God our kids are smart and we have resources to help them. Vote NO on the parcel tax.

  8. The Superintendent did say 10% of students are not logging in, AT ALL. That is disturbing, especially if it’s the same 10% we are trying to serve with asynchronous.

    Regardless, we need PHONE reach out and MASKED visits ASAP. This sort of thing is happening in other districts through the country. In rural districts with ZERO Internet school buses and volunteers are bringing lunches, memory sticks (computers were given), and paper work.

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