Passing easier in city schools

Board has lowered minimum mark from 70 to 60 in key subjects


When city school students return to class Aug. 28, they'll find it easier to advance because the minimum passing grade for key subjects has been lowered from 70 to 60, a change that abandons a six-year-old policy once hailed as shock therapy for a troubled system.

With little fanfare or public input, the city school board voted 6-1 in early June, with one abstention, to reduce the minimum passing marks in reading, math and some science classes in the first through 12th grades.

Minutes of the board's June 13 meeting show that despite concerns about the lack of public debate, the board made the significant policy change in an unusually hurried fashion.

The sole vote against the change was cast by board member Anirban Basu, who argued that the new policy was, in effect, a lowering of academic standards.

"Trying to change outcomes by merely changing the number, as opposed to performance, doesn't work," Basu said yesterday. "Before, a student who got a 62 did not pass. Today, a student that gets a 62 passes. To me, that's what it means to lower standards."

The June vote was overshadowed by the speculation about the future of Bonnie S. Copeland, who stepped down a short time later as schools chief. Her decision to quit was the climax of a tumultuous three-year stint punctuated by an attempt by the state to seize control of 11 failing city schools.

According to a transcript of the meeting, school board Chairman Brian D. Morris appeared to express hesitation after hearing Basu's objection, but he voted along with the board's majority.

"My initial thought was we were lowering standards," Morris said yesterday, "but how are we lowering standards if every other district has the same standards?"

During the meeting, Morris also indicated that he preferred to have more than a single hearing before voting on what he called "significant policy changes."

Board member James W. Campbell agreed, saying, "I think there should be a hearing and get public input on a change like this. We could get criticism if people don't understand it."

But after board member Kalman R. Hettleman assured the board that the issue had been discussed at previous meetings of the Parent and Community Advisory Board, Morris agreed to the vote.

It was not clear from the transcript who abstained.

The city schools have become political fodder in the gubernatorial battle between Mayor Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich a Republican.

In a TV campaign ad, Ehrlich stands on a tree-lined street and says: "This Baltimore neighborhood deserves excellent public schools, but with some students unable to read their diplomas, 54 schools need help immediately."

The state school board voted to take over 11 of the schools, but the move was thwarted by the legislature, which "voted to give the mayor more time," Ehrlich says

In a radio ad, O'Malley's running mate, Del. Anthony G. Brown, says: "It's shameful to watch Maryland's governor attack the hard work and dedication of Baltimore's teachers, parents and students, when the facts show Baltimore's schools are making real progress."

An O'Malley spokeswoman said last night that the minimum passing grade "doesn't matter. What matters is that the students are proficient in the skills they need. If they deserve to pass ... they should. If not, they shouldn't."

In 1999, the school board voted to raise the minimum passing grade from 60 to 70 and to end the policy of social promotion, or sending students to the next grade even if they failed to meet academic standards.

Now, it appears that a limited version of social promotion remains in place.

According to the schools' revised promotion and graduation policy, elementary and middle school pupils who have been held back one year "should be promoted, even if the student does not meet the standards for promotion."

A spokeswoman for the school system said the policy against "multiple retentions" has been in effect at least since the 2003-2004 school year.

The lowered minimum passing grade will go into effect when the new school year begins Aug. 28.

School officials say the impetus behind the change was not to boost graduation numbers but to address a problem that has hindered seniors in city schools who were seeking admission to college.

The officials also justified the change as a way to put the city's grading system in line with those of other school districts across the state where the passing grade is also 60, according to a transcript of the June 13 meeting.

At the meeting, the school board heard college experts testify that the school system's minimum passing grade of 70 confused some college admission officers and hurt city applicants.

College admissions officers presume that a Baltimore student's barely passing grade of 72 is the equivalent of 62 in one of the counties, testified Sharice McGill, an admissions director at Villa Julie College. City education officials maintain that even a barely passing grade in the city is the equivalent of a C.

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