Instead of participating successfully in traditional instruction, thousands of Fresno Unified School District students have been offered a dubious shortcut to “academic success” and “diplomas” to document their achievement. Photo by Peter Maiden

FUSD Academic Performance in Decline

Some call it “product downsizing.” For others, it’s “shrinkflation.”

It happens when you buy tissue paper or instant coffee, and the amount you get is less than what used to be in the same package.

Instead of 65 tissues, the package now has only 60. Something that used to hold 51 ounces of instant coffee now has less than 44.

Shrinkflation doesn’t only happen in retail stores, though.

You can also see it in many high school diplomas now being handed out in the Fresno Unified School District (FUSD): They just don’t have the same value that they used to. On the surface, the packaging is the same—the gowns and mortarboards at commencement, the stirring renditions of “Pomp and Circumstance”—but the documents being awarded these days don’t always have the merit that they once did.

How has this happened? What accounts for “diploma downsizing”? At least three factors help to explain the diminishing value of many diplomas awarded in local high schools.

First, there’s the ongoing impact of grade inflation. For years, administrators have regularly pressured teachers about the number of D’s and F’s they were “giving.” Since I retired in 2016 after 30 years of service, that pressure has only intensified.

One recent approach to grading, something promulgated by many administrators, argues that students should never receive a zero on an assignment even if they completed zero percent of the task in question. Instead, if 10 points were possible for the work, those students should get five points. Assessing student work this way certainly lowers the number of D’s and F’s, and, by extension, this elevates the number of putative graduates in a senior class.

A few weeks ago, one administrator wrote an e-mail to his staff, asking them to again consider how they could further reduce the number of D’s and F’s that students were receiving. He went on to lament that some instructors were “penalizing” students for late work and still giving them zeros for missing assignments.

Recently, during an all-day teacher in-service at one high school, the lion’s share of the agenda centered on reducing D’s and F’s when assessing student work.

The granting of diplomas is predicated on the amount of high school credits earned, which in turn is based on learning outcomes as measured by grades. If the rigor of grading diminishes over time, then the worth of diplomas will ineluctably be affected.

But diploma downsizing results from more than mere grade inflation. A second factor, as FUSD Trustee Terry Slatic explained in a radio interview in July 2022, has to do with Assembly Bill 104, legislation passed two years ago. Section 3 of AB 104 allows secondary school students missing a significant number of credits to still receive diplomas.

Officially, high school students need 230 credits to graduate, but Section 3 allowed for this provision to be circumvented. Recently, according to Slatic, more than a thousand FUSD students who were missing many credits—70, 80 and even more in some cases—were still granted diplomas.

In some instances, individuals who only had standing as sophomores could graduate in lieu of earning more credits and mastering skills in summer school or during a fifth year of high school. True, they earned “diplomas,” but what merit do those documents actually have?

And the story goes on.

A third factor that erodes the worth of many FUSD diplomas has to do with something called “credit recovery.” In this program, students who are in danger of failing classes—so many that they might not graduate at the end of their senior year—are encouraged to participate in computer-based sessions to get the credits they need.

They’ll sit in front of computer screens for a matter of days or weeks, read and answer questions on their screens, and in most cases “earn” credits for courses like American history or art. Instead of spending a semester’s worth of time to collect such credits, however, they meet this requirement in much less time, raising the question of just how academically rigorous—or flaccid—such sessions are.

The district has offered an online curriculum for credit recovery for more than 12 years, and it’s currently available at all the district’s comprehensive and alternative secondary schools. At present, a company called Edgenuity supplies the materials for these courses.

Those who teach Edgenuity sessions are not necessarily credentialed in the areas that the students are learning about; they aren’t math, English or social studies instructors, for example. They’re not in a position to actively guide participants to learn material; they’re merely in the room to monitor them behind a computer screen.

“It’s not about learning,” as one Edgenuity instructor put it. “It’s about credit recovery.”

The fundamentals of this program were outlined in a July 2022 article in the Community Alliance newspaper. Soon after, the author approached the district to find out more about the nuts and bolts of this process.

“Edgenuity is offered in all graduation requirement areas as a credit recovery option,” FUSD wrote back. “There is no limit” to the number of courses that students can get credit for using this approach.

In addition, “the total number of students who have attempted Edgenuity courses since 2014 is 28,877,” and 21,407 have in fact garnered credits through this system over the past eight years.

Instead of participating successfully in traditional instruction, these individuals have been offered a dubious shortcut to “academic success” and “diplomas” to document their achievement.

What are the costs of diploma downsizing? 

In March 2020, Bill McEwen wrote a scathing assessment of the district in an article titled “Fresno Unified Out of Excuses for Terrible Academic Performance.” Among other things, he reported that only 12.1% of the district’s students began the 2019 school year at grade level or above in math and only 18.9% were at grade level or above in reading. A member of FUSD’s leadership stated that those figures haven’t improved substantially since McEwen’s article appeared.

Larry Powell, former Fresno County superintendent of schools, warned about this situation in a 2018 op-ed, urging that high school graduates need to be ready to attend college or trade school.

Offering students easier routes to a diploma does little to prepare them for the challenges of higher education or career training, and it negatively impacts the local economy, which needs skilled workers to grow and flourish.

If you buy a jar of instant coffee that contains less coffee than it used to, you’re paying more for that product. If much of what you buy has been downsized, your purchasing power is being significantly compromised.

Diploma downsizing, it turns out, brings with it far more dire consequences.

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