Grade changes investigated in city school

Teachers, parents say system policies make it impossible to fail

July 22, 2013|By Erica L. Green, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore school officials are investigating allegations at a middle school that dozens of students were given passing grades so they could move on to the next grade, even though their teachers had given them failing marks.

Grade changes are being investigated at Booker T. Washington Middle School. Several teachers from the school told The Baltimore Sun that dozens of the grades they issued of 50 percent, the lowest possible, were later changed to 90 percent.

In some cases, students who never attended class received higher grades than students who showed up and did the work, according to the teachers, who spoke to The Sun on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Sonja Santelises, chief academic officer for the school system, said district officials are "aware of the allegations and are in the middle of the investigation" at Booker T. Washington. She also said district officials are in the process of "furthering" the investigation into possible grade changes at other schools "to see just how widespread it could possibly be."

In addition, Santelises said, the school system plans to issue "more specific guidance" regarding districtwide policies that discourage holding students back a grade and encourage exhausting all options to help them pass. She said some schools could have misinterpreted the policies. She declined to comment further about Booker T. Washington, citing the pending investigation.

A decades-old debate has brewed in the school system about the district's grading policies and standards for promoting students to the next grade. As recently as 2011, the policies have been tweaked in an attempt to decrease subjectivity. Research shows that holding students back multiple times can be detrimental to their academic careers.

The Booker T. Washington teachers said changes were made to their students' grades in the school's computerized "student management system" without their knowledge. In that system, 60 percent represents a passing D-minus grade, and more than 90 percent an A.

"Two or three days after the school year, I checked the [student management system], and I couldn't believe it — my 50 [percent] students went up to the 90," recalled one teacher, who found that nearly 20 grades were changed.

A 50 percent is failing.

"In all cases, the exact grade that the student needed to pass, they got. Kids who were literally not present at all had gotten the same grades as those who were. Some of them walked out with higher grades than the kids who actually tried and could only manage a C," the teacher said.

It was not clear who may have changed the grades. Santelises said that "once grades are finalized, anyone with administrative access to the student management system can change grades." Access can also be granted to nonadministrators by principals.

Repeated calls to the school's principal and assistant principal were not returned.

Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's administrators union, said he was aware of the allegations and was working with school officials to resolve the matter.

Santelises said that the district's policies allow for a myriad of options to help students pass, including raising students' grades if they complete extra work. But she emphasized that in all cases, grades should be earned.

"We, as a district, have made sure that at every step of the way, students have options and safety nets to get back on track with their schoolwork," Santelises said. "I think what happens is you have 200-plus schools, and different interpretations based on different circumstances, and people misinterpreting what the actual practice should look like.

"We in no way endorse, encourage or tolerate the abuse of the policy. … What we're very clear about is that the grade changes need to be substantiated. If they are not, that is just unethical."

The Booker T. Washington teachers said the school's administrators had told teachers that efforts to prevent students from failing needed to be ramped up as the school year came to a close.

Santelises said there was no districtwide target for the number of students who can be held back a grade. She said, however, that the district discourages teachers from retaining students in kindergarten through eighth grade more than twice.

The Booker T. Washington teachers said they allowed students to do extra work, such as multiple projects, to help them pass. The efforts followed months of interventions, including parent meetings, home visits and other measures, to ensure students and families knew students were at risk of failing.

"We weren't against the idea of helping them because we wanted them to pass, but we wanted them to pass because they did the work," recalled the teacher with nearly 20 grade changes. "I had kids who really turned it around and surprised the hell out of me. Then I had kids who just didn't care."

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