Education

How low should grades go? Debate continues today in Beaufort County schools

An ad hoc committee of the Beaufort County school board studying the use of grade floors will meet at 4 p.m. today at the district office in Beaufort.

The school district has been criticized for enacting inconsistent grade-floor policies, with many arguing it is bad public policy.

The practice came under scrutiny after the resignation of Beaufort High School principal Dan Durbin, who changed grades for 33 students without following district protocol.

District officials, though, have said grade floors are different from Durbin's "unilateral" actions.

The practice, used in some or all courses at 11 schools in the district, essentially gives a student a higher "F" on a report card. For example, if a student earns a 45 percent during a quarter, it would show up as a 60 percent. The higher grade prevents the student from falling too far behind, allowing another chance to pass before semester grades are issued, principals have said.

Critics say grade floors fail to hold a student accountable and misrepresent their knowledge and a teacher's performance.

The school board approved a policy in July that keeps grades under teachers' control and requires they follow the state's grading scale.

But if a teacher or school adopts specific grading practices -- such as the decision by 11 of the district's schools to give students no lower than a 60 percent on report cards -- district administration must approve the practice.

Policies differ among schools, and many policies were formulated after the board vote in July to accept grade floors, creating a patchwork of standards "rife with folly and mismanagement," according to Hilton Head Island resident Larry Meyers, whose grandson attends Hilton Head High. Meyers also formerly served on the School Improvement Council at Hilton Head Island Middle School.

"It seems the (school board) approved an undefined process or practice that had not even existed," he said. "So what rigor and procedure did the 11 principals and teachers follow before? It seems that any school could make a self-serving policy that no one checked up on -- with no oversight or authorization."

The S.C. Board of Education and state superintendent have frowned on the practice.

State Superintendent Mick Zais in an April 30 memo said grade floors "fail to reflect an honest assessment of student mastery of work and the level of completion of a course of study."

South Carolina's Uniform Grading Police does not prohibit use of grade floors, but it also does not encourage or recommend such practices, according to Zais.

The state grading scale was implemented to "fairly determine GPA and class rank ... not to establish a floor for quizzes, tests, essays or any other graded project," Zais wrote.

"In the long-term, these practices are a disservice to students because these practices undermine their preparedness for life after high school."

Meyers agrees. "The subjectivity of the teacher, principal and school administrator may be self-serving to meet performance standards," he said. "Lets not dumb down our community. ... We need to do better."

Check back with The Beaufort Gazette and The Island Packet for more following today's meeting and follow reporter Tom Barton at twitter.com/IPBG_Tom.

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