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

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Beaufort County school board members agree grade floor policies should be applied consistently across all schools, but are split as to whether they are needed.

"There is a big philosophical divide on this," said board member JoAnn Orischak, who sits on a newly-formed ad hoc committee studying the use of grade floors, as well as other curriculum issues.

"I think we need to hear from teachers across the district ... to see whether they see value in grade floors, whether it should be used at all or (only at) certain grade levels," Orischak said.

The committee met Tuesday but spent all of its time dicussing advanced math sequencing for gifted students.

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 February 2012 resignation of Beaufort High School principal Dan Durbin, who changed grades for 33 students without following district protocol.

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

The practice, used in some or all courses at about a dozen 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. The policy is intended to keep struggling students motivated.

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

Orischak questions whether grade floors hold students to lower standards, and used Hilton Head High as an example of a school that has been successful without them.

"It appears to me, without the grade floors, students and athletes at that school have been held to a higher standard and still performed well," she said of the school that was named a Palmetto's Finest last year.

Despite that, different students are being held to different standards, said board member Mary Cordray, who questioned whether schools with a grade floor give students an unfair leg up -- particularly athletes who must maintain a 2.0 GPA to play.

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 to give students no lower than a 60 percent on report cards, district administration must approve the practice.

The differing policies -- many of which were formulated after the board vote in July to accept grade floors --creates 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 worries schools could make a self-serving policy to meet performance standards -- with little or no oversight.

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."

The state grading scale was implemented to "fairly determine GPA and class rank ... not to establish a floor ... ," Zais wrote.

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

Related content

  1. Setting 'grade floors' now requires Beaufort County school district approval: July 19, 2012
  2. Half of Beaufort County schools use grade floors: April 14, 2012
  3. Superintendent Mick Zais' April 30 statement on grade floors