Baltimore City Schools' 'which' hunt

January 10, 1995|By Maurice B. Howard

A "WHICH" HUNT brought about the recent change in the grading policy for Baltimore City middle and high school students.

One of the school board's roles is to find "which" policies and rules unfairly penalize students and change them. A recent hunt showed that the system's grading policy was making it harder for city students to compete with students from other Maryland districts for college entry and scholarships. The result: the board lowered the passing grade from 70 to 60.

The board's move reversed a change made 11 years ago, which raised the passing grade from 60 to 70. It was made shortly after the release of "A Nation at Risk," a federal report that described a "rising tide of mediocrity" in U.S. schools.

The change in the early 1980s was a classic example of a well-intentioned effort to add rigor that backfired, resulting in the inequity found by the board. Educators were compelled to work fast to save "a nation at risk" because of low educational expectations for students and diminishing numbers of students in higher level courses.

Unlike the rest of Maryland, though, Baltimore City chose to modify its grading scale so it would be more difficult for students to pass. In fairness, those who altered the policy apparently believed that it would motivate students to study harder.

That goal was not met. The relative number of students passing has remained the same during the past decade. Student enrollment and achievement in higher level courses have only modestly changed. Student achievement has remained quite high in schools where it was quite high before the grading policy change. Why? Changes in grading policy will have no impact on academic standards.

Changing the grading scale neither adds rigor nor raises academic standards. Rigor increases when students enroll in more challenging courses (with support to help them achieve success) -- when "height and depth" are added to the curriculum.

Given the response to the board's grading scale change, it appears that the Baltimore shift to the lower passing grade has met with approval from many students, parents and guardians, and alumni (particularly those from city-wide high schools) who earned high grades with the seemingly more difficult grading scale.

The most troubling result of the 1980s grading policy change was that Baltimore City students have been unable to compete equitably with their peers in the rest of the state. Students applying for scholarships have been judged in part on a grade point average that was lower than their peers from other school systems with the same report card grades.

But the change has its critics. The latest rush to pummel the school board for leveling the playing floor for Baltimore students vs. other Maryland public high school students exposes a long-standing public misperception about grading. The general public -- and apparently many Baltimore City students -- have the false perception that grading in schools is a scientific process in which empirical evidence is given to parents and guardians of the exact level of student achievement during some established time period.

The truth is that grading is most imprecise, extremely subjective and is often used both positively and negatively for purposes other than communicating the level of student achievement. At times grades are modified to indicate progress more than achievement, to reward good behavior, to motivate students to try harder, or to punish students who did not cooperate with the teacher's way of organizing and teaching. Report card time for educators is when we are most "godlike," dishing out positive and negative rewards that signal far more than student achievement.

Times have changed, but the subjective nature of determining grades for students has not. What must change is any educational policy or practice that results in an inequity for Baltimore City students. Since the passing grade was not the first inequity to be found and remedied by the board, it will likely not be the last. The "which" hunt must continue.

Maurice B. Howard is assistant superintendent for instruction with the city schools.

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