Grades for performance

August 16, 2006

By dropping the minimum passing grade for students from 70 to 60, Baltimore city school officials insist that they are not lowering standards. On the contrary, they say that the grade change is meant to keep city students competitive for college admissions and scholarships, because Baltimore's grade structure will now conform to other jurisdictions in the state. But the grade change only works to help students if it also means that they will not be rewarded for poor performance under the new policy any more than they would have been under the old one. The last thing the board should do is allow students to think that they don't have to work as hard to pass.

Most Maryland school districts use a grading range of 60 to 100, with 60, 70, 80 and 90 marking the minimums for D's, C's, B's and A's, respectively, which many college admissions officers translate into a 4-point scale. Those officers are not likely to consider students whose average falls below a C or a 2.0. But since Baltimore has been using 70 as the minimum passing score for the last few years, some admissions officers, particularly outside the state, have been confused as to whether to interpret a grade of 70 as a C or a D, a 1.0 or a 2.0. Some students, parents and outside counselors complained to the school board that the confusion was hurting admissions and scholarship prospects.

That is certainly an important consideration for a school board that is trying to improve the academic performance of a system that faces many challenges. After a month-long investigation into the complaints by a special subcommittee of the board, a majority of the board voted in June to bring Baltimore's grading system into alignment with the rest of the state. Most school officials adamantly defend the change, which goes into effect for the new school year that begins in two weeks, as a move to help as many students as possible get into college - and not a lowering of standards.

But if the same student who was barely passing with a 70 last year barely passes with a 60 this year, he or she is still not likely to get into college. If admissions officers thought that C students under the old system were really D students or worse, then school officials should have done a better job of explaining the grading curve. Now, the change will only make sense and have teeth if the school system demands even better performances from students, so that more of them get A's and B's - and admission to college won't even be a question.

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