As I prepare for the final push towards who might need to repeat… I want to make sure that you are averaging grades correctly.
At the end of the grading period, nothing less than a 50 is to be averaged. If students had zeroes, or other grades less than 50%, those grades are to be averaged as 50’s.
Look this over. I’ll be checking grade books again before we run report cards next week.
At the time of this post, Dr. Ide has not offered comment. As near as I can tell, this policy calls for pretty blatant grade inflation. Students who might otherwise have zeroes bringing down their GPA (or any other low grades below 50) get the benefit of having those scores raised.
The question is whether this is a district policy, an unofficial way of doing business, or an isolated incident.
First off, it's clearly not district policy. MNPS' grading policy [pdf] can be found here, along with all the other district policies. It's a fairly short document, but this is the grading system that is set up for middle schools:
Each grading period, the student’s grade in each subject shall be composed of at least eighteen (18) separate graded assignments/assessments. Adjustments may be made for art, music, physical education and related studies classes that may not meet daily.
Seventy (70) percent mastery of the subject matter shall be considered passing.
The grading legend for grades 5-8 shall be:
A = 100-93
B = 92-85
C = 84—75
D = 74-70
F = 69 and Below
Numerical grades shall be used on the report cards and the cumulative records.
Two key points here:
1) Since grades are given numerically (i.e. "You got a 85" rather than "You got a C"), then you can't wrap up all low grades into a catchall category. (If going solely based on letters and grade-points, a 0 would be the same as a 68; both would be an "F.")
2) There's no provision for dropping ultra-low grades, or turning them into 50's, as Dr. Ide instructed her teachers to do.
How many students this affects, it's hard to tell. You can be sure, however, that it's important. Each MNPS school has a data sheet generated yearly, containing demographic information, test scores, behavioral indicators, and other information. Thurgood Marshall, being new, only has one year of data [pdf]. But that data, combined with this policy, is instructive.
Take a look at the numbers from Thurgood Marshall's 2008-2009 school year:
% promoted: 99.9%
% D's: 8.1%
% F's: 3.2%
This email is explicitly about grade retention and promotion. It's logical to assume that if grades below 50 weren't artificially inflated, then the numbers of D's and F's would rise, and the percentage of students promoted would plummet. Just for reference, here are a few other middle schools' numbers:
% promoted: 99.0%
% D's: 10.7%
% F's: 3.7%
Apollo Middle (2008-2009) [pdf]:
% promoted: 98.9%
% D's: 11.5% (down from a high of 15.3% in 2006-2007)
% F's: 5.4% (down from a high of 13.5% in 2006-2007)
Bellevue Middle (2008-2009) [pdf]:
% promoted: 99.9%
% D's: 5.7%
% F's: 1.8%
All in all, then, not that atypical. And that's the point. If a message is to be taken from this post, it should be this: This is, no doubt, a situation endemic to MNPS (as well as other urban school systems). Of course, I lack the dozens of other emails from various schools that would confirm my supposition, yet I find it impossible to imagine that this kind of grade and promotion manipulation is an isolated occurrence at a single school. This post is not an attack on Dr. Ide and Thurgood Marshall Middle School per se. To read it as such would be ignoring its broader implications.
Sure, there's evidence saying that retaining students is often the worst alternative when trying to close the achievement gap. Sure, it's a problem pretty much everywhere else in the country. But that's not an excuse for grade inflation.
This is supposed to be a new era of data, transparency and accountability. How are we ever going to begin solving the problems of education, and especially of closing the achievement gap for poor and minority students, if we keep covering them up? Just like we're doing with state standards, MNPS should be committed to dealing with the problems of its students head-on, not hiding them and passing them along. If an 8th grader has 5 zeroes on assignments, then that student needs help. If a teacher has done everything he or she can do to get that student into class, motivated and attentive, including involving the parents (as many teachers do), then that teacher needs help. Simply covering up the problem won't make it go away. It's not a solution. As Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said:
Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.(quoted in Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 67 (1976))
The first step on the road to recovery is admitting you have a problem. MNPS, its teachers and its administrators get knocked around quite often for their shortcomings (real and imagined). The solution, however, isn't to hide the problems you've got. It's to confront them head-on and deal with them. 'Nuff said.