San Jose leaders say a new state law that allows students to redo a disastrous year of distance learning could be a “godsend” for struggling South Bay students.

On July 1, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 104, which allows students to request a redo of the 2020-21 school year, substitute Pass or No Pass for letter grades and receive a high school diploma for 130 college prep credits rather than 230 credits.

While some students thrived in the new virtual learning environment caused by COVID-19, many others dropped out. The county reported about 3,000 high school students left last year without a degree.

Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco told San José Spotlight AB 104 is “a godsend” because it levels the playing field for those who are disconnected and lack resources. Carrasco represents East San Jose, an area hit hard by the pandemic with disproportionately higher rates of poverty compared to other parts of the city. The neighborhood also falls on the wrong side of Silicon Valley’s digital divide, with many East San Jose students falling behind on classwork without WiFi or computers.

“It’s particularly heartbreaking when you see a student who’s done really well and worked really hard and… didn’t repeat that last year.”

Jennifer Maddox, San Jose Unified School District

“AB 104 is truly fantastic when it comes to racial equity and attempting to level the playing field,” Carrasco said. “AB 104 is a blessing for a lot of students; they shouldn’t be penalized for things out of their control.”

Jennifer Maddox, spokesperson for the San Jose Unified School District, said the state is trying to alleviate some of the stress among students caused by the pandemic. 

“It’s particularly heartbreaking when you see a student who’s done really well and worked really hard and… didn’t repeat that last year,” she said. “All of us are going to have to reset expectations to some extent and make sure that we’re giving kids the support they need.”

But choosing retention and Pass/No Pass has consequences and should be decided on a case-by-case basis, educators say.

Retention

AB 104 gives parents the right to request a consultation to have their student repeat the school year. Academic and social information, as well as the option to retake classes, are considered to determine if redoing the school year is in the student’s best interest. Students who don’t repeat the year can still retake courses they failed or received a D in during the 2020-21 academic year.

Hilaria Bauer, superintendent of the Alum Rock Union School District, said AB 104 allows parents to request elementary students be retained in the same grade if they failed three or more subjects.

“This request is presented to the student’s teacher and the school administration,” Bauer told San José Spotlight. “As a group, they need to meet and decide what is best for the child.”

Maddox said any SJUSD family concerned that their student is behind because of the COVID-19 pandemic can request a review, but the district has a “pretty strong stance” against retention.

“Research about keeping students back is overwhelmingly clear that generally it’s not beneficial to the student, even if they are behind a grade level academically,” Maddox said. “So, typically we want students to promote to the next grade and we put in supports to help them catch up.”

AB 104 has a strict timeline, requiring parents and students to request grade changes through their schools by Aug. 15.

Pass/No Pass

High school students can change the first and/or second semester letter grades they received in the 2020-21 academic year to Pass or No Pass through AB 104. The bill requires the California State University system to accept adjusted transcripts and encourages the same from the University of California and private universities.

Teresa Marquez, associate superintendent of the East Side Union High School District, said AB 104 helps students by minimizing the effect of negative grades on their transcripts, allowing some seniors to graduate who wouldn’t have otherwise.

But she cautions that some colleges may not accept alternative grades.

“We’re making sure we are clear with our families about the potential impact of choosing a Pass or No Pass,” she said. “It’s going to depend on each student’s goals in terms of where they want to go to a university.”

Parents such as Tina Richards find the Pass/No Pass option confusing.

“I don’t think there’s enough information about whether or not students will benefit from it,” Richards told San José Spotlight, adding that she wishes there was more time for research as her son doesn’t know which colleges he’s interested in attending yet.

Maddox said a straight A student who earned a B last year might consider changing the B to Pass, but college admissions might think they got a D.

“They’re looking at the whole transcript, not just the grade point average,” she said.

Both the CSU and UC systems say Pass grades will meet requirements, but won’t be calculated in a student’s GPA. However, UC admissions says on its website that it “strongly encourages” applicants to take college prep courses for letter grades.

Diplomas

Maddox said after an incredibly difficult year of distance learning during the pandemic, giving students the opportunity to graduate with their class is beneficial. She said students who want to attend a California university still have to meet high school A-G course requirements, but those planning a vocational route or community college don’t.

“Being able to have your diploma and know you graduated in the year you planned to graduate is definitely a lift for a lot of students,” Maddox said. “I think it is really good to know you’re still getting what you worked for your whole school career: your high school diploma.”

To learn more about AB 104, parents of elementary school students should speak with school principals and teachers. Parents of high schoolers should contact their school guidance counselors. 

Contact Lorraine Gabbert at lorrainegabbertsjspotlight@gmail.com.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.