Philly’s New Grading System Doesn’t Allow Teachers to Override Final Grades


by Christopher Paslay

Brace yourself.  Report card mayhem is coming to a school near you.

Recently it was announced that the Philadelphia School District’s new online grade book program, designed by a Minnesota software company called Infinite Campus, will not allow teachers to override final grades when the system opens this week.

According to a memo from District officials:

Teachers will NOT be able to put in overrides for final averages and should keep this in mind when posting. They can see how the Term 4 Posted Grade will affect the final average by changing the Grading Task drop down from “Term Grade” to “Final Grade.” Every class should have a posted percent that matches the score. (This includes P/F courses). Make sure teachers hit POST and then SAVE on every section!! For a refresher, they can watch the Posting Grades video.

Bombshell revelation?

You better believe it.

Whether this information was made known in September is unclear, but the fact remains that stripping teachers of the ability to tweak and adjust final grades is mind numbing (if this is indeed the case).  For those unaware of the situation, here is a summary of how finals grades will be calculated by the District’s grade book, at least as it appears now from the information available.

First, the difference between a “composite percent” and a “composite grade” must be made clear.  A “composite present” is the actual grade the student earned (the mathematical calculation of the quarter grade based on the assignments in the teacher’s grade book).  The “composite grade” is the grade that showed up on the students report card for the quarter (which includes grades that were rounded-up or overridden by a teacher).  For example, a student’s first quarter “composite percent” might have been a 77, but the teacher may have rounded it up and given an 80 via an “override,” and this 80 would be the student’s “composite grade,” and appear on the report card.

The way it appears the District’s grade book will calculate a student’s final grade this year will be by averaging the composite percent—NOT composite grade—on each of the four quarters.  Which means the override grade will not be factored into the final average, only the original base number.  So that 80 that the student received on the report card will really go into the system as a 77 and affect the overall final grade by making it lower than anticipated (at least this is how the system is currently computing the grades, according to what is currently on Infinite Campus).  Oh, and the teacher can’t override it, which is the real kicker.

As you can imagine, this is going to cause some major headaches for teachers, not to mention students and their parents (and of course principals, who will have to deal with the irate students and parents).  The magnitude of the blowback will be both small and large, depending on the situation and how badly the student was misled about his or her grade.

For example, a student may lose little to no points and be none the wiser.  If a student’s teacher didn’t round his or her grade up more than a point or two during the first three quarters, the difference will be negligible, and no harm will be done.  However, the more points a teacher gave a student via the “override” feature during the first three quarters, the more there will be a disparity between the grades on the first three report cards and the student’s final grade.

Take this situation: a student with an IEP or a 504 plan is putting in an honest effort but still struggling nonetheless.  His percentage grade is only a 50 for the first three quarters, but he is making progress, so the teacher gives him a 60—the minimum passing grade—for the first three quarters out of good faith.  The student’s final grade will be based on the three 50’s, not the three 60’s.  Which means that in order for the student to pass for the year, the teacher will need to give this student a 90 for the fourth quarter to make the percentage come to an average of a 60, which is passing.

Should the student receive a 90 if they are nowhere near that level of achievement?  Normally, a teacher in this situation would give the grade the student deserved for the fourth quarter, and tweak the final average according to the individual situation of the student.  But since the District’s new grading system doesn’t allow a teacher to override the final average, what is the alternative?  Fail the child?

Basically, every single teacher in the Philadelphia School District who was liberal with giving students extra points via the “override” feature during the first three quarters (and all of us has at least one or two students like this, and for very good reasons), is going to be put to the squeeze.  Should I let the child fail, or give him or her an outrageously high fourth quarter grade? 

And what about the fact that the child was misled the whole year about his or her actual grades?  If the “composite percent” was the only true grade that counted toward the final average, what was the purpose of the override feature for the first three quarters?  And what if the points added via the override weren’t simply given for free?  What if students earned them?  For the past 20 years, I’ve added my students’ participation grade—points they earned through engaging in the lessons—directly to the report card at the end of each quarter; many times my best students’ quarter averages go from 88’s to 92’s because of participation.  This would mean they’d be robbed of up to 12 points they’ve earned over three quarters because of this new screwy system.

Finally, there’s the case of this working in reverse.  What about a student who games the system by getting a 70 percent on the first and second quarter, and then becomes chronically absent for the next five months, not completing a single assignment.  As it stands now, because the system doesn’t allow a teacher to give below a 50, and because there’s no override feature for the final grade, this student will pass the course with a 60, and not have learned much in the process.

Why in the world the District would allow students and teachers to be misled for nine months about their grades is beyond comprehension.  If the override feature is not available for the final grade—and the grades posted via the override function for the first three quarters don’t count toward the final average—why was the override feature available at all?  Seriously?  What in God’s name was the point?  To mislead and confuse?

Even now I’m hoping the information I’ve received about the District’s fourth quarter grade book is somehow inaccurate, and that the flaws and mind-boggling inconsistencies I’ve mentioned above are the result of some kind of miscommunication, either on my part or the part of the District.

If, however, what I’ve been told is true, brace yourself for some serious fallout from parents and students, especially from the special education department (and their lawyers).  This year’s fourth quarter grading will be historic.  Get ready for report card mayhem!

Phila. School District Must Drop Minimum-50 Grading Policy

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”.