Colleges adjust admissions for high school seniors, juniors

California’s public education institutions announces options for grading, suspension of testing and admissions flexibility

The Sun-Gazette

SACRAMENTO — The generation that grew up in the post-9/11 world is about to come of age in the COVID-19 pandemic. Already robbed of their senior prom and facing the reality of not being able to participate in a graduation ceremony, high school seniors are still clinging to the hope of pursuing their ambitions in college this fall.  

Earlier this month, state superintendent of public instruction Tony Thurmond announced new guidance on graduation requirements and grading for seniors. The guidance is based on feedback from local education agencies, and was produced in collaboration with higher education institutions.

“We are thinking of our seniors and the impact that the current COVID-19 public health emergency and subsequent physical closure of schools has had on them, and we hope that this guidance will help relieve some stress and anxiety,” said Thurmond. “We are doing everything we can to support all our schools and students, and will continue to address seniors’ needs going forward.”

Tulare County superintendent of schools Tim Hire said the coronavirus’ impact will be felt more by the class of 2021 than this year’s seniors. Hire said universities have already sent out acceptance letters for the fall and usually use senior transcripts as a quick check up on a students’ progress heading into fall. The issue for the class of 2020 is more about missed social opportunities and traditions. Hire said it is unlikely the Governor’s shelter-in-place order will be lifted in time to hold graduation ceremonies in June. Hire said he could not speak for district superintendents but said the Tulare County Office of Education is working toward holding a ceremony for its graduates sometime this summer, possibly as late as early August. In his weekly meetings with local superintendents, the prevailing sentiment is that in person graduations will be held. He also said virtual graduations present different technical challenges that are not insignificant.

“There is no magical date for graduation, which is evidenced by the different days we hold ceremonies in this county to accommodate so many high schools,” Hire said. “We believe it’s that important to have a formal gathering to celebrate student accomplishments.”

For this year’s juniors, Hire said the state has issued guidance to districts addressing A-G requirements, a list of core classes required for admission to the University of California (UC) and California State University (CSU) systems. On April 1, the State Board of Education (SBE), California Department of Education (CDE), California State University (CSU), University of California (UC), California Community Colleges, and independent nonprofit colleges and universities, issued a joint letter offering seniors with the following assurances:

  • Re-evaluation of the financial needs, as well as the eligibility for federal and college financial aid, for families whose circumstances have changed; 
  • Acceptance of credit/no-credit grades in lieu of letter grades for A-G high school courses completed in winter/spring/summer 2020; 
  • Flexibilities associated with the receipt of official transcripts and confirmation of admissions offers, including deferments of deposits or fees, where needed; 
  • Flexibility and support for students currently enrolled in dual enrollment course offerings; 
  • For community college students seeking to transfer to a four-year university: Acceptance of credit/no-credit in lieu of letter grades in “golden four” and general education/prerequisite courses completed at a community college in winter/spring/summer 2020. 

These are represented in guidance from each of the sectors, available at The letter goes on to state that parents and students should contact university admissions offices with specific questions.

“As educators, we understand the anxieties triggered by the many uncertainties students now face and trust these accommodations provide a measure of relief,” the letter stated. “We look forward to the days far past this pandemic when we can welcome back our students and greet new ones with a handshake or a hug.”

In the meantime, seniors still have to meet all of the requirements to graduate. Thurmond clarified that it is up to each school district on whether or not they will grade assignments going forward. Thurmond cautioned districts to “weigh their policies with the lens of equity and with the primary goal of first, doing no harm to students.” He cautioned parents against expectations that the grading plan this month remain the same next month as the situation is constantly evolving. Hire agreed, reminding parents not to worry as students in nearly every school district across the country will have similar grades for the end of this year.

“It’s not something parents should worry about,” Hire said. “Higher education institutions have come to an agreement that whatever a school district chooses to do will be accepted.”

The state’s top educator also issued options for calculating final grades, with the understanding that each district will decide on their own grading systems. The easiest option is for schools to use a student’s current grade at the time that in-person instruction ended, sometime between March 23-27 for most schools in California, with opportunities for students to make up missed work or extra credit work that had been assigned prior to the school closures. Districts could also modify this to include an opt-in system for students wanting to continue graded studies through independent study.

Districts that choose to continue grading assignments have the option of not using traditional grades based on percentages and GPAs but rather on a student’s ability to demonstrate their knowledge of a topic within each subject. Districts could also give students a pass/fail or credit/no credit option which would not affect their GPA but give higher education an idea of where graduating seniors will need review.

Another option would be to allow high school students to opt out of classes, which would temporarily be listed as incompletes on their transcripts until they can be made up at a later date. For career and technical education classes, Thurmond recommended districts substitute research projects for a competition, allowing non-traditional volunteer hours to allow for social distancing, and having students demonstrate their mastery of a skillset through videos rather than obtaining a certification through a work program.

One thing students won’t have to be concerned with is statewide testing. California suspended statewide testing on March 24 including the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP), English Language Proficiency Assessments of California (ELPAC), Physical Fitness Test, California High School Proficiency Examination and the high school equivalency test. 

On March 26, CDE sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education requesting approval to waive federal assessment and accountability requirements for the 2019-20 school year. Federal education officials granted preliminary approval for the waiver at the end of last month and are expected to issue a final approval sometime this week or next. 

“All seniors who are on track for graduation should be able to graduate,” said State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond. “This new guidance further illustrates how students can and should be held harmless in grading, and how their work can be acknowledged.”

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