Half of Beaufort County schools use grade floors

rheaton@islandpacket.comApril 14, 2012 

Students at half of Beaufort County's public schools can't earn less than a 60 percent on their report cards.

That's because their schools have rules that prevent lower grades, policies intended to keep struggling students motivated.

"The purpose of the grade floor is to give students who were not successful during a particular quarter an opportunity to successfully pass a teacher's class for the year," Whale Branch Early College High School principal Priscilla Drake said in an email. "This is offered to students to help motivate them to turn things around rather than giving up."

For example, if a student's grade computes to a 52 average, it will be marked as a 60 on the report card. The grade is still an "F" under state law. It's just a higher "F."

District officials said there is no districtwide grade-floor policy, and there won't be one.

Schools are allowed to adopt their own grade-floor policies, and 15 have. The details of each vary, but all of them keep the minimum grade as an "F."

Principals said the decision was made after teachers reached a consensus on the topic. Often, the discussion doesn't occur just once, as many principals said teachers re-examine the issue each year.

Principals at most of the schools that use a grade floor say the practice was agreed to so students don't get too discouraged. Pulling a grade up from a 45 percent, for example, is a lot harder than pulling a grade up from a 60. And coming back from a zero? That's nearly impossible.

The discussion of grade floors comes a month and a half after Beaufort High School principal Dan Durbin resigned after admitting he changed grades for 33 "struggling" students. Soon after the incident, district staff told principals to make sure that if they have grade-floor policies, they are in writing and that parents know about them.

PUNISHING FAILURE

Experts say research supports minimum-grading policies.

"If a student in the first test somehow gets a zero, that almost guarantees that he might as well just stop," said Ed Dickey, a professor of education at the University of South Carolina who has studied grade floors.

Dickey said having a grading scale that allows so much room for an "F" -- from zero to a 69 percent -- but only allows for a 7 percentage-point range for an "A" doesn't make much sense.

"We use such a broad range to punish failure," he said. "We don't have anywhere near that range to measure the upper levels of success."

Thomas Guskey, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky, agreed.

"People will say, 'We need to be teaching these kids responsibility,' and I am with you on that. But responsibility is different from achievement," he said.

Do grade floors allow some students to skate by?

"If a kid can come in on the last day and take my final exam and get an 'A,' they get an 'A' in the class. The thing is no one is able to do that," Guskey said.

District instructional services chief Sean Alford agreed. Students who get a 60 percent are unlikely to even get a "C" as a final grade in that course.

"For a kid to have two 60s, and then come back and pump out two 95s, once in a blue moon you'll see that. ... The likelihood would be (that student) would not pass the class," he said.

NO DISTRICT MANDATE

A grade floor for at least some courses is in place at eight elementary schools, five middle schools and two high schools. Most of those school follow similar rules.

At 10 of the schools, the lowest grade given is a 60, while the five others don't give out grades below a 62.

Some of the policies only apply to grades given in the first, second or third quarters.

It's not clear if the results of the policies are being tracked. Because teachers enter the grades as 60s, principals don't have hard numbers as to how many students these policies affect. District officials couldn't even say exactly how many had the policy in place.

Though grade-floor policies are left to individual schools, in 2003, a district policy for middle and high schools was put in place. It said that students earned no lower than a 62 percent on their report cards.

But in 2008, the Board of Education rescinded all policies and adopted new ones.

In 2010, a committee of several principals, along with Alford and district academic improvement officer Melissa Sheppard, decided there should be no districtwide policy. An administrative rule was adopted to keep it that way.

"Grading is not black and white," said Superintendent Valerie Truesdale, who thinks grading should be left to the teachers' discretion. "It's very dependent upon whether or not the teacher believes the student has mastered the material or put forth the necessary effort. It's a really complex topic."

Truesdale said the use of grade floors differs from Durbin's actions at Beaufort High School. Durbin changed grades and awarded course credit unilaterally without following the district protocol, which includes review by a teacher, principal and data specialist, Truesdale said.

"The difference is the world 'unilateral.' The issue with Dr. Durbin is a totally different issue," she said.

Truesdale added that in many cases, Durbin changed final grades, which allowed students to earn course credit. There's a distinction between changing final grades and changing quarter grades meant to be a guage of how well a student is doing, she said.

It's not clear from data the district released in early March how many of the 200 grade changes Durbin made were related to final grades and earning course credit.

REVISITING THE TOPIC

Some teachers feel that grade floors shouldn't be in place because grades are their decision, said Matthew Hunt, principal at Whale Branch Middle School, which does not have a grade floor.

"Teachers are often of the mindset that kids get grades for what they've earned, and if kids haven't done the work, then they haven't earned the percentage points," he said. "We look at the research and visit it every year. We've talked about it, but teachers haven't agreed."

Principals at several elementary schools that don't have grade-floor policies said such minimum grade levels are rarely needed.

"No one has come up with an instance where it would have made a difference," Red Cedar Elementary School principal Kathy Corley said. In elementary school, she said, teachers tend to intervene before a student fails; they help students at recess or put off a test to re-teach material.

Several principals whose schools do not have grade floors said teachers were beginning to talk about the practice again as they set rules for next school year. Red Cedar is one of those school, and Corley said she's not sure how the discussion will end.

"To say we're firmly in the 'no way, no how, not ever' camp, that's not accurate," she said.

Follow reporter Rachel Heaton at twitter.com/HomeroomBft.

Related content:

South Carolina uniform grading policy

VIDEO: Rick Wormeli, author of Fair Isn't Always Equal, tackles the issue of zeros on the 100-point scale

Five Obstacles to Grading Reform, an article in Educational Leadership by Thomas Guskey

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