City schools’ grading policy deserves a zero

Published 10:47 am Saturday, September 24, 2011

by Howie Soucek

There is growing concern about a new academic grading policy that has been put into place in Franklin City Public Schools.

Under the policy, no teacher is permitted to award a student a grade lower than a “60” for any test, quiz, essay, project or other assignment. In my view, this amounts to a blatant lowering of academic standards and expectations with ramifications that will affect the entire community, especially the student victims of such an ill-conceived policy.

With a more forgiving system in place, students who are capable but relatively unmotivated can get by with less effort now. At the extreme, a student can score a 100 percent on only 25 percent of the work, produce absolutely nothing on all the rest of the work, and still pass — or 100 percent on half the work, nothing on the other half, and be awarded a “C.” While few, if any, students may act at the extreme, it remains the case that more students can pass (or wind up with whatever grade they want) with far less effort, thanks to this new policy.

Will this policy help our students? If all that matters is to require less effort on their part to pass, then the answer must be yes; however, there is no regard in this policy for the long-term best interests of our youths, who in the future will encounter higher expectations for performance and harsh consequences for a lack thereof. What a tragic disservice to them, then, to expect so little of them in the here and now.

To consider the “how” of this policy’s development: One would think that the professionals most familiar with the students’ needs, capabilities, problems and motivations would have been consulted on such a critical policy decision. I have heard of no such inclusion — only that teachers were left out as usual and that they see this policy as more evidence that our school system’s central-office leadership may talk about more academic rigor but is instead inclined to lower academic standards.

Thus, as unfortunate as this policy may be for students, the way in which it came to be sends yet another clear message to every teacher who cares about professionalism: “We do not care what you think.”

Also to consider is the way this policy was put into place: When teachers were told that they were required to use the new policy, they were also told that the school board had approved it. What a shock it must have been, then, for teachers to learn that at the September board meeting more than one member of the board expressed concern that the policy had been put into practice, in fact, without the board’s approval or knowledge. Please consider the effects of these events on the element of trust within the school system. Yes, trust is a big deal — at least it should be.

In my opinion, a grading policy, especially one with such serious consequences as this one, should have been discussed in a board meeting under the public eye. One wonders how many other issues and topics, whether in open session or closed, should have been communicated to the school board but were not.

Why in the world would a policy such at this be put into place? To say that the policy was designed to actually help students would be laughable, except that it will instead hurt them in the future; astonishment instantly supplants the laughter. There being no other obvious reason, I am left to theorize about a hidden agenda — one that centers mostly on the fact that a key school system evaluation criterion under scrutiny by the federal government is the school system’s graduation rate — and our school system, along with many others, needs to improve its graduation rate.

By lowering our academic standards required to pass classes, we will accordingly be making it much easier for students to “earn” a diploma and graduate. Students whose motivation does not match their capability will be able to pass their SOLs, demonstrate very little effort in their actual class work, and still walk across the graduation stage with a diploma. The only winner in this scenario will be the school system’s central office administration, whose statistics will look better to big government. I believe that is what all this is about.

And what will these diplomas mean to area employers? Indeed, how much value do employers currently place on high school diplomas? Why don’t you ask them? I submit that this new policy will be a further disservice to our community’s employers.

Thus we have a new school policy slipped in under the public’s radar since it was not approved by the school board — one that lowers academic standards, cheapens the value of a high school diploma, and passes along to our employers and community a higher proportion of youths who expect more for less and who are less able to contribute intelligently and responsibly to their community and society at large — not to forget that the method our school system’s central office leadership used to force this policy into place is yet another insult to the professionalism of our teachers.

If it is calculated that this new policy will reduce the number of dropouts, my suggestion is that an artificial, indiscriminate crutch such as this policy represents will pale by comparison to the effectiveness of individual teachers working with individual students to keep them in school, to personally encourage them, and to prepare them for success in a challenge-filled future. Dropouts have been prevented in this way countless times by great teachers.

As we continue unnecessarily to lose too many of our best students and teachers to other options, we have only to look at how the school system is being managed by its leadership to see why; and as public education in our nation continues its relentless trek toward the edge of the cliff, we can consider our own school system — sacrificing one worthy practice after another at the altar of the statistics gods — as an example of what is wrong all across America. I’d say the new grading policy has earned a zero, but I have a hunch the central office leadership will go behind my back and change the grade.

HOWIE SOUCEK of Franklin is a human resources professional and former schoolteacher. His email address is