School board re-examins grading procedures


March 10, 2009

Introduced nearly a decade ago, the Pittsburgh School District's grading procedure eliminates the unequal weight of an “E” grade by setting the failing percentage from 59 percent - 50 percent, allowing no “E” to be recorded lower than 50 percent.

Last September all staff received a notice reinforcing the district's 50 percent minimum procedure, sparking some debate about the practice. After much deliberation a committee comprised of teachers, principals, staff and leadership of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers (PFT) have recommended that the district amend its 50 percent minimum grading procedure.

Teachers expressed concern that some students were opting to receive a 50 percent in lieu of turning in assignments, an unintended result of the procedure. The committee recommends that students who refuse to do work or opt to not do work in order to receive a 50 percent will now have a zero as their recorded percentage. Any student putting forth a legitimate effort but earning a percentage less than 50 percent will have the assignment graded as an “E” and recorded at 50 percent. For all assignments, the actual percentage earned will be communicated to students and parents. The amended procedure is effective immediately.

“This amended procedure balances the need to make it mathematically possible for students to bring up their grades during a nine week period, while making them aware that we expect them at all times to put forth their best effort on assignments,” said Superintendent Mark Roosevelt.

The district stands by the core principles that led to implementation of the 50 percent minimum grading procedure. The rationale for the 50 percent minimum grading scale is as follows:

• Equity Across Schools: The Failing Percentage (59 percent-50 percent) creates equity across all schools. Many teachers were already using the 50 percent as the lowest recorded “E”.

• Increased Student Engagement: Students with failing percentages below 50 percent often feel helpless and disenfranchised as a result of not being able to recover from low percentages. Students in this situation may develop or may have increased behavioral and/or attendance issues leading to retention and/or dropping out.

• Unequal Weight: The 59 percentage point band from 0 percent-59 percent creates a skewing situation with failing grades carrying more weight than passing grades. The proportion of scale committed to E's is disproportionately weighted when combining grades given that As, Bs, Cs, and Ds are based on 10-point intervals; whereas the E is based on a 60-point interval. This is mathematically invalid and irrational when averaging grades. When the zero is applied to a 100-point scale, the interval is not 10 points but 60 points.

• Use of zero: (1) skews final averaged grades downward because of the disproportionate range given to E grades on individual tasks (2) is seldom an accurate reflection of what a student has learned or is able to do (3) no current research supports the use of zeros or low grades as effective punishments.

Creates a More Representative Final Grade: Recording 50 percent as the lowest “E” even if actual percentage earned is less is not grade inflation. The 50 percent is still failing. In addition, a high school student would have to earn 100 percent on the semester final in order to pass the semester if she/he had a recorded 50 percent for both the first and second nine weeks.


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