Argument in favor of lower scores doesn't pass

August 19, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

I realize I might be rolling the dice with my sanity, but I'm going to try and get Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to agree on something.

Wouldn't both concur that principals at City College - my beloved alma mater - and my adopted alma mater of Polytechnic Institute should have the autonomy to keep passing grades at 70 for these two excellent public schools?

This summer, the school board voted to drop the passing grade for the entire system from 70 to 60. This act led to much dispute. O'Malley defended the move as simply keeping Baltimore's school system in line with schools in the rest of the state. Others who supported the lower passing grade pointed to the testimony of college admissions officers, who said the passing grade of 70 put Baltimore students at a disadvantage in getting admitted to college.

Ehrlich, in a Sun article by reporters Gadi Dechter and Doug Donovan, said that he was "stunned and disappointed that city leaders can easily lower expectations for students with such enormous potential."

Whether the passing grade for Baltimore schools remains at 60 or is raised once again to 70, there is historical precedent for giving principals at City and Poly the discretion to leave the passing grade for their schools at 70, or even raising it to 75 if they want.

In 1994, Joseph M. Wilson became principal at City. He immediately raised the passing grade to 70 and, according to an article by Sun reporter Liz Bowie, "began offering a tougher academic regimen." Eight years later, 90 percent of City grads were going to four-year colleges and universities.

Poly's history of a passing grade of 70 goes back much further. In the spring of 1966, when I was a ninth-grader at what was then Harlem Park Junior High School, I and classmate Marvin "Marty" Burrell pondered which high school we should select. We were both pretty good at the math thing.

I had had my heart set on going to City at least as far back as 1963. Burrell chose Poly. During our sophomore year, he just happened to tell me in a casual conversation that he needed a 70 to pass his classes at Poly.

"A 70?" I said to myself. "Boy, better you than me, Marty."

As I thought about Poly's passing grade and why it was 10 points higher than the rest of Baltimore schools, the policy began to make sense. Poly is an elite - yes, I know folks at North Avenue just cringe at that word - high school with a focus on math, science and engineering. Would you want to cross a bridge designed by an engineer who knew only 60 percent of his work?

Apparently, leaders of the city school system answered that question with a "Yes, we do. Indeed, we do. Absolutely, we do," sometime in the 1990s. According to alumni and former and current Poly faculty, city school leaders jackbooted Poly administrators into lowering the school's passing grade to 60 sometime in the 1990s. (Poly alum Joseph K. Leary placed the blame squarely at the feet of then-Superintendent Walter G. Amprey in a Sun letter to the editor of Jan. 6, 1996.)

"We've been down this road before," said Saraunda Loughlin, who began a 22-year teaching stint at Poly in 1982. "We went to 60 for a while, then we brought it [the passing grade of 70] back." Loughlin said the passing grade at Poly was 70 the year she arrived.

Sam Brown, a retired Poly vice principal and math department chairman, said the passing grade "was 70 forever." The change "was forced on us by Baltimore City. We objected to it. We were furious."

Adrian Palazzi, the president of Poly's alumni association, graduated from the school in 1970. The passing grade was 70 when he entered in 1966, the same year as my buddy, Marty Burrell.

"I was close to [a 70] many a time," Palazzi acknowledged. In those days, numerical grades were given at Poly, as they were at City, so students knew how close they came to flunking at both schools.

Loughlin said Poly alumni were "very unhappy" when city school officials lowered the grade to 60. Palazzi said alumni were against lowering Poly's passing grade in the 1990s and are against lowering it for the entire school system now.

"Needless to say, we're against it," Palazzi said. "We think you raise the standards, not lower the standards. You don't lower yourself to the lowest common denominator, you raise everybody up."

Did Poly students of his era, as has been implied, have trouble when it came to applying to colleges and universities because the school's passing grade was 70?

"Not that I'm aware of," said Palazzi. "I don't understand that logic. How does a passing grade improve one's chances of getting admitted or performing once you're there?"

Brown was even more blunt.

"How in the world are you going to go to college with grades of 60?" he asked.

Craig Woolston, a City grad who's assistant principal at Poly (yes, these things happen from time to time), said that despite what O'Malley and school officials say, "We're still lowering standards" with a passing grade of 60.

O'Malley and school officials perhaps need a mathematical explanation. If you have a criterion that requires a mayor or a superintendent to complete 70 percent of his or her work, and then the criterion is lowered to 60 percent, that's a drop in standards. It's really quite simple.

Or, as Poly's alumni, faculty and students might say: It ain't three-variable calculus, folks.

greg.kane@baltsun.com

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