Eyebrows Raised Over City School Policy That Sets 50% As Minimum Score

Joe Smydo, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, September 22, 2008

Pittsburgh Public Schools officials say they want to give struggling children a chance, but the district is raising eyebrows with a policy that sets 50 percent as the minimum score a student can receive for assignments, tests and other work.

The district and teachers union last week issued a joint memo to ensure staff members’ compliance with the policy, which was already on the books but enforced only at some schools. Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President John Tarka said the policy is several years old.

While some districts use “F” as a failing grade, the city uses an “E.”

“The ‘E’ is to be recorded no lower than a 50 percent, regardless of the actual percent earned. For example, if the student earns a 20 percent on a class assignment, the grade is recorded as a 50 percent,” said the memo from Jerri Lippert, the district’s executive director of curriculum, instruction and professional development, and Mary VanHorn, a PFT vice president.

In each subject, a student’s percentage scores on tests and other work are averaged into a grade for each of the four marking periods. Percentages for marking periods later are averaged into semester and year-end grades.

A student receives an “A” for scores ranging from 100 percent to 90 percent, a “B” for scores ranging from 89 percent to 80 percent, a “C” for scores ranging from 79 percent to 70 percent, a “D” for scores ranging from 69 percent to 60 percent and an “E” for scores ranging from 59 percent to the cutoff, 50 percent.

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At the same time, they said, the 50 percent minimum gives children a chance to catch up and a reason to keep trying. If a student gets a 20 percent in a class for the first marking period, Ms. Pugh said, he or she would need a 100 percent during the second marking period just to squeak through the semester.

“We want to create situations where students can recover and not give up,” she said, adding a sense of helplessness can lead to behavior and attendance problems.

“It’s not grade inflation. We’re not saying, ‘Give people passing grades,’ ” Ms. Pugh said.

But the policy strikes some teachers and parents as rewarding bad work and at odds with the district’s “Excellence for All” improvement campaign.

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