Mayor defends grading change

City school board decision to lower passing mark is criticized by Ehrlich, others

August 16, 2006|By GADI DECHTER AND DOUG DONOVAN | GADI DECHTER AND DOUG DONOVAN,SUN REPORTERS

Mayor Martin O'Malley rallied yesterday to the defense of city school board members who lowered the passing grade for key subjects taught in Baltimore's schools, but the move drew criticism from several City Council members and a spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

During an appearance at an East Baltimore middle school, O'Malley said lowering the minimum passing grade from 70 to 60 changed the grading scale, but it did not lower standards. He said the school board acted properly by aligning the city school system with others around the state that use 60 as the minimum passing grade. "We do not want standards lowered," O'Malley said.

Interim schools Chief Executive Officer Charlene Cooper Boston, who joined O'Malley for a cleanup campaign at Northeast Middle School yesterday, said she also supports the new policy, though it was enacted in early June, before she took the top school's job. Boston's comments mirrored some of the same points that were made by O'Malley.

"Board members wanted to have a system of grading that was similar to other districts across the state," said Boston. "And while the passing grade has changed from 70 to 60, we haven't changed our standards, because we are expecting our children to do well on various assessments."

The city school system has become political fodder in the gubernatorial race pitting O'Malley, a Democrat, against Ehrlich, a Republican. This year, the state school board voted to take control of 11 failing city schools, but the move was thwarted by the legislature. Some of Ehrlich's televised campaign ads have focused on the school system's troubles and the failed takeover effort.

"The governor is stunned and disappointed that city leaders can so easily lower expectations for students with such enormous potential," said Henry Fawell, an Ehrlich spokesman, adding:

"Governor Ehrlich has higher expectations for these students than do their own city leaders."

The change in grading will begin when city schools open Aug. 28. The school board voted to lower the minimum passing grade in early June. But the decision was lost in the shuffle while attention was focused on school closings and speculation about the fate of then-CEO Bonnie Copeland, who eventually stepped down.

Yesterday, O'Malley said the school board did not notify him about the change, and he did not learn about it until last week. The disclosure of the change also came as a surprise to many public officials and parents.

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. When the changes went into effect in 2000, proponents hailed them for raising the academic bar for city students.

O'Malley, Boston, school board President Brian D. Morris and other school officials have maintained that lowering the passing grade is procedural, not substantive, but critics say otherwise.

On Monday, the City Council voted on a resolution calling on state legislators to end the city-state partnership that governs the city school system. The council fell a vote short of the 12 it needed to suspend the rules so it could immediately adopt the resolution. The resolution was drafted by Councilman Keiffer J. Mitchell Jr.

Yesterday, Mitchell and Councilman James B. Kraft said that the school board's action lowered standards for students. They also expressed frustration that the decision was made so quickly.

"I don't know how it can't be viewed as lowering standards," Mitchell said. "It sells our children short."

Kraft agreed.

"Our students need to know that we believe in their ability to perform well in school," said the councilman in a statement. "Decisions like this, however, make it look like we've given up on them."

Mitchell said the decision was a surprise to parents, teachers and community members.

"The council had no idea," he said. "You have parents and teachers who didn't know. There was no input from the community before the board, no input from teachers who are charged with grading."

Councilman Kenneth N. Harris Sr. said he intends to call school officials to come before the education committee he chairs "to explain their rationale on lowering the standards."

In a transcript of the June 13 meeting, some school board members, including Chairman Brian D. Morris, expressed misgivings about making a "significant policy change" without additional hearings, but officials justified the hurried process yesterday, in part because the issue of promotion standards had been discussed by students and parents May 9 at a school board meeting.

Yesterday, the mayor said lowering the minimal pass score to 60 allows college admissions directors to more easily convert a high school transcript from Baltimore into the conventional 4.0 grade-point average.

O'Malley said that the old grading system made some city students compare unfavorably to students from other jurisdictions. He also mentioned Craig Spilman, executive director of the CollegeBound Foundation, as a chief proponent of the change.

But when Spilman appeared before the school board in June, transcripts show that the former principal advised them they had two options: They could provide colleges with a grade conversion chart for city schools or the system could go back to the 60-100 pass range. "If you decide to keep the current grading scale, it could work," Spilman testified, according to the transcript. "But you'd have to do a lot of work in communicating it and educating a lot of people about how different it is."

gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

doug.donovan@baltsun.com

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