"We are not a college placement school. We're preparing kids for life."
-- Joseph Townsley, Superintendent of Schools, Simsbury, Connecticut
For most of the past year, school administrators in Simsbury, Connecticut, an affluent community just outside of Hartford, have found themselves dealing with hundreds of angry parents, all demanding immediate changes at the town's high school. The parents who have spoken repeatedly and emotionally at PTA and school board meetings are not calling for tighter school discipline or more foreign language courses or improved technology, however. They are concerned about the school's academic standards. Those standards, parents say, are too high.
Specifically, the Simsbury parents are protesting what they regard as overly stringent grading policies at the high school. According to the parents, students at Simsbury High School receive significantly fewer A's than do students of similar ability attending high schools in equally affluent communities. The dearth of A's in Simsbury, the parents say, prevents many students from being admitted to the nation's most prestigious colleges and universities.
Confronted with the assurances of many admissions officers that students' GPAs are considered in the context of the school they attend, the parents point to Simsbury's class of 1998. Students in that class, they say, placed fourth among 11 similar schools on their SATs but only eighth in the number of students admitted to top-tier colleges. Simsbury, the parents say, needs to change its grading policies to make it easier for students to get A's.
Although not everyone agrees with the position of the parents who want to see grading standards eased, school administrators have agreed to study the issue. Simsbury's superintendent of schools, Joseph Townsley, told Education World that the school board has set a goal of addressing the issue of grading and its relationship to admission to tier-one schools and that the board is considering a number of possible actions. Among those actions are the development of a Simsbury student profile, a marketing plan to familiarize top colleges and universities with standards at Simsbury High School, and a policy requiring teachers to grade with a specific grade distribution. Under that policy, teachers would be required to award a certain number of A's.
At present, Townsley told Education World, Simsbury has no system-wide standard for awarding an A. "Although, in most cases, individual departments meet and set departmental standards, thus achieving some degree of consistency, the grade a student ultimately receives is left up to the discretion of the teacher."
Based on an informal Education World poll of school administrators across the country, Simsbury's grading policy appears to be typical in procedure, if not in results. Although many systems set grading guidelines, many others do not. Even with guidelines, of course, grading can be a pretty subjective endeavor.
In Portland, Oregon, for example, an A relates to a numerical score of 90 to 100. "But that's probably only objectively true in certain math classes," middle school director Peter Hamilton told Education World. "How do you grade an English paper numerically?" he asked. "In most cases," Hamilton said, "a student's final grade is probably pretty subjective, based on both effort and achievement -- with no good agreement on how each should be weighed."
Sid Smith, director of curriculum in Boston, Massachusetts, reports a similar system in his city's schools. "In Boston," Smith told Education World, "we've established benchmarks in reading and math. Those benchmarks must be met for a student to achieve a passing grade. Above and beyond that, there's lots of teacher discretion, although, numerically, an A is 90 to 100."
"In South Carolina, the state Department of Education set numerical values for each letter grade, so that an A, B, C, etc., would be the same at every school in the state," according to Linda Leary, an administrator in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Under the new state grading scale, which goes into effect in September, an A is 93 to 100, a B is 85 to 92, a C is 77 to 84, a D is 70 to 76, and anything below 69 is an F."
Lyn McCarty, a program specialist in central California, reported that in her district, "grading policy is pretty much up to the discretion of the teachers" and that factors such as class attendance, class participation, and special projects, can change the numerical grade regardless of student achievement. "What we do have," McCarty noted, "is a policy, district wide and site specific, about how many classes must be passed in order to matriculate to the next grade level. That, of course, is bogus criteria if the guidelines for what could result in a failing grade are not consistent among teachers or sites."
At Parker High School in Janesville, Wisconsin, "each teacher sets his or her own grading standard, although most seem to adhere to the 90 to 100 range for an A," technology teacher Dave Figi told Education World. "Each teacher also has his or her own algorithm for computing grades, although tradition has been that final exams do not count for more than 20 percent of the semester grade." According to Figi, his grading standards are also based on the traditional 90 to 100 range for an A. "To determine the final grade," Figi noted, "I combine academic, attendance, and attitude points, then give academic points four times the weight of attendance and attitude points."
In general, our poll revealed that in most school systems -- even in those systems with specific grading scales -- a student's final grade is only rarely a result of objective criteria. Most frequently, the grade is up to the discretion of the individual teacher, and it often reflects a number of criteria unrelated to academic achievement. Although benchmarks in core subjects can help determine a passing grade, determining standards for D's, C's, B's, and A's is much more difficult.
Simsbury administrators, however, are going to spend the summer trying to do just that. "Our most important objective," Superintendent Townsley told Education World, "is to make sure we're fair to the kids. They have a right to know how to get a specific grade. There is, however, the question of academic integrity. We are not a college placement school. We're preparing kids for life."
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