Court backs teachers' rights to determine grades
By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
March 2009
California Educator


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.
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