by Christopher Paslay
A zero should not equal a 50. But in the Philadelphia School District, that’s exactly what a student receives when he or she fails to do a single ounce of work: a 50.
Although most of my students are hard workers and turn in quality work, there are always a handful of kids who either skip school or just flat out refuse to turn in assignments.
A prime example is a student I had last school year who received a 94 on her first report card. She was intelligent and a very good writer and critical thinker. But soon she got caught up with the wrong group of friends, and she began cutting school. Despite conferences and phone calls home, this student disappeared from class for nearly two months.
When it was time to turn in grades in January, despite her fast start, she was clearly failing the class; her 22 for the second marking period added to her 94 on the first averaged to a 58 cumulative grade.
However, the Philadelphia School District’s computer system doesn’t allow for a grade below a 50 to be entered. So when her grade was computed, she had a 72 after two quarters. This was ridiculous, because she had missed nearly six weeks of work. The worst part about it was the message it sent to her and her mother: she could skip school and still pass.
I explained this predicament to administrators at my school, and they told me to have no fear, that at the end of the year when I imputed the final grade, I could use the override feature on the district’s grading system and replace the inflated grade with actual earned one. When I head this I thought: Sure, I can override the final grade, but by that time, it will be too late. The student will have already failed the course.
Anyway, the third marking period came and went and this student’s behavior continued. Although I made some headway with the student’s mother, the student still had problems with cutting, and her third quarter grade came to a 60. Of course, when I put the 60 into the system with the inflated 50 from the second quarter, the computer added up the three marking periods and her grade came to a 68%. Still passing!
I was stunned. The student thought she had beaten the system. Of course, this wasn’t really true, except on paper. Her grade was really a 58%, and at the end of the year, no matter what the computer said her grade was, I was going to override it with the grade she earned.
Fortunately, in the end, a breakthrough was made and things worked out. The student began attending regularly, and finished the fourth quarter strong, making up some of the missed work from earlier in the year. Her final grade came to a 66%, and she passed the course by the skin of her teeth.
What’s the moral of the story? That the Philadelphia School District should drop its minimum-50 grading policy. Although in theory it’s supposed to stop kids from mathematically eliminating themselves from passing early in the year (and keep them motivated), all it’s really doing is giving students a false sense of security and not holding them accountable for their work.
For more on the topic, read Steve Friess’s article in USA Today headlined, “At some schools, failure goes from zero to 50”.