Behind city grade change

College-bound students part of process marked by confusion

August 27, 2006|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,Sun reporter

The two Dunbar High School students who told the city school board that their college aspirations were in peril because of the system's confusing grading policy - and whose emotional testimony helped prompt a reduction in passing grade standards - were accepted by universities under the grading policy they criticized.

When classes begin tomorrow at Seton Hill University, a private college near Pittsburgh, two Dunbar graduates, Unell Woodhouse and Mikel Moore, are slated to be freshmen and members of the football team.

On May 9, Woodhouse, Moore and members of their families appeared at a school board meeting and requested a written copy of the system's grading policy.

The students told the board that college admission officials were confused about the grading system, under which 70 was the minimum passing grade, and they were worried that they wouldn't get into college. A month later, the board lowered the passing grade from 70 to 60 for the coming school year.

The reduction of the passing grade sparked a new skirmish this month in the gubernatorial battle between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, and his Democratic challenger, Mayor Martin O'Malley.

Ehrlich pointed to the lowering of the passing grade and the board's failure to get public input before making the change as reasons why he refused to reappoint three city school board members backed by O'Malley, including the chairman, Brian Morris.

O'Malley supports the board's contention that it did not lower standards but merely aligned the city schools' grading system with other education systems in the state.

Through interviews and examinations of minutes of school board meetings, The Sun has put together a portrait of how the policy change was made. It began with the two students' request for a written explanation of the grading system and it mushroomed into the board's decision to lower the minimum passing grade for tens of thousands of students. The new passing grade goes into effect tomorrow, when city schools open.

When Unell Woodhouse appeared before the board in May, he was accompanied by an uncle, Miles Woodhouse, who made an urgent plea for a document explaining the grading system, which he had been unable to obtain from Dunbar.

Unell's mother, Tammatha Woodhouse, who is a school system employee, did not speak at the meeting.

"I applied to Seton Hill University, Westfield State University, a school called Neumont University in Utah. They all called me back to tell me my average was too low to get into college because of the grading scale," Woodhouse told the board, according to the minutes of the meeting.

In a recent interview with The Sun, Ashley Hoffman, the Seton Hill admissions officer who evaluated Woodhouse's application, said his admission was never in jeopardy, nor was there ever any confusion about how to evaluate Baltimore school grades.

Hoffman said the university decided to admit Woodhouse on May 9, which is the same day he testified before the school board.

Scott Doxey, the admissions director at Neumont University in Utah, said that Woodhouse didn't complete an application to the school. Doxey added that Woodhouse's Dunbar transcripts were never sent, so there could not have been concern about his grades.

Janet Garcia, a spokeswoman for Westfield State University in Massachusetts, said Woodhouse was also admitted there.

Garcia said the school asked Dunbar for a "school profile," or routine document that explains, among other things, a school's grading information.

It was Dunbar's inability to provide such a document that prompted a frustrated Woodhouse to show up at the school board meeting, said his mother and his uncle.

By the first week in May, Unell Woodhouse had already been rejected by two colleges, and he was still waiting to hear from Seton Hill and Westfield State, said his mother.

"His mind started racing because of the fear of not getting into college," said Tammatha Woodhouse. "He said, `Ma, I'm going to the board. This is my future. They need to give me a letter or something, because I need to go to college.'"

"I was speaking on behalf of my sister, who couldn't speak because she is an employee of the school system and was really concerned about [perceptions of seeking] special treatment, or being a difficult employee," said Miles Woodhouse.

Linda Chinnia, the school system's chief academic officer, said she did not know that Woodhouse was the son of school system employee when he appeared before the board, and it had no effect on the school system's response.

In June, a subcommittee, which was already looking into promotion-related matters, recommended lowering the passing grade from 70 to 60.

"Post-secondary institutions do not recognize and have trouble interpreting the current secondary grading scale because it does not match the traditional national standard," Everene Johnson-Turner, a school official, told the board at the June meeting in a summary of the subcommittee's findings.

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