Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Pittsburgh's Newer Grading Policy

Give the people running the Pittsburgh school district credit . . . at least they're thinking up new ideas. A month into the school year they sent out a memo informing teachers that they were not to give grades below 50 regardless of whether a student completed an assignment or got 10% of the questions right. I was not happy when I read the news (nor was I any happier the next day when I thought it over), and even wrote a memo of my own.

Why? A number of reasons -- the largest among them being that making that change mid-year suddenly tells students that not doing work isn't that big of an issue. And in a district where student discipline and lack of effort are arguably the biggest issue in schools, that's not the right message to be sending. As a result of the policy change, students had little problem telling teachers that they didn't feel like doing the assigned work.

So now they're trying again. I'd heard that change was coming, and an article in today's Post-Gazette details the new system they've dreamt up, which they want pilot in two schools before the end of the year. Here's how the P-G describes the new system: "Under the new scale, work scored from 4 to 5 will be an A, 3 to 3.99 a B, 2 to 2.99 a C, 1 to 1.99 a D, and zero to .99 an E."

I have two reactions:

1.) Good for them for making the change. The article does a good job of describing how upset people were and why, including this quote:

"Some students have been refusing to complete assignments, telling teachers they'd take the 50 percent instead. Bill Hileman, a Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers staff representative, said 'the No. 1 problem with the 50 percent minimum was the negative impact on student behavior.'"

Changing it is clearly the right decision. Better yet, according to article teachers are now allowed to award zeroes when students make no attempt at completing an assignment.

2.) What the heck is this new system? Sometimes the wheel needs to be reinvented, but I'm not sure this is one of those times -- or at least not the right way. I see why they're doing it -- they want fewer kids to fail, and this system will do that. They're apparently quite convinced that the old system is capricious for kids who fail an assignment -- 60 out of 101 possible grades are failing which, apparently, means that the system is weighted toward failure. Here's the problem: every grading system has more than its fair share of flaws, this new one included. The end result is that they've made it more difficult for students to fail, but confused everybody more.

I'm going to follow this post up with an analysis comparing the various grading systems.

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