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Update: New grading policy and information system mark the start of school year

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    Emma Lee/WHYY

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This article was updated to include a clarification from the District recieved late Tuesday night, but a District spokesperson has since informed the Notebook  that the original article was accurate: the only grades that can not be entered below a 50 percent are students' grades for each marking period. Grades for tests, classwork, homework etc.  can still be entered below 50 percent.

Educators, parents, and students are facing significant changes this year in Philadelphia in how they log and access information with the replacement of the aged School Computer Network and the rollout of a new grading policy.

The grading policy, for starters, has sparked confusion and speculation from teachers about two changes in particular: a rule that no grade can be entered below a 50 and a mandate to apply uniform weighted percentages to different aspects of students' work.

Superintendent William Hite said that the new system was introduced as the District transitions to new grading software, but that the primary intent of changing the system was to standardize the way that students are graded at different schools and make the calculation of their grades transparent to parents.

“We want grading criteria to be rigorous, challenging, and transparent,” said Hite. “If you were a student, I would want you and your parent or family member to know exactly how we arrived at that grade.”

He was referring to the new universal percentage breakdown for grades that is applied to all classes: 40 percent for tests, 30 percent for in-class assignments, 20 percent for participation, and 10 percent for homework. Previously, these percentages were determined at the school level by teachers and their principals.

Hite said that although the percentages themselves can’t be altered, teachers have flexibility in how they choose to enter assignments. For example, teachers can enter projects into the system as tests, meaning that projects would account for 40 percent of a student’s grade. That would give them a higher weight than at other schools where they would be included in the “performance-based learning” category along with quizzes, which accounts for 30 percent of a student’s grade. This adaptation will be necessary for many teachers at project-based learning schools.

Hite also clarified a point of confusion among teachers on social media: the rule that no grade can be entered below a 50 percent only applies to the student’s final grade for each marking period, and does not apply to things like homework, classwork, tests, etc.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan sounded a positive note, saying the changes would help students catch up if they’ve fallen behind.  

“Particularly in the first report period, when the grades go in, if a child gets a zero, it’s virtually impossible for that child to be able to pass the course, because grades are cumulative,” Jordan said. “If they know they have a zero, they may not come to the class or may be more likely to be disruptive. We don’t want to penalize a child, especially at the beginning of the school year, if it ensures that child will not have an opportunity to be successful in that class.”

Hite sounded a similar note.

“I don’t want grades to be used as punishment, although this has been happening for years,” Hite said. “I want grades to be a reflection of what children know and are able to do. I want to ensure that children have opportunities, even when they fail, to continue to work at something in order to learn.”

“Once you get that zero, there’s not much you can do to recover from that,” he said. “It’s a shift around making sure we value our assessments as a tool for informing learning vs. just a grading system that can be used for punishment.”

And the system is still subject to change in response to feedback from staff.

“Along with our academic team, there’s a whole task force that’s been working on this: principals, teachers, guidance counselors, roster chairs,” Hite said. “We’re going to be reviewing these criteria every marking period.”

The grading policy coincides with the upgrade of the District’s student information system. After almost 30 years, the School Computer Network will be replaced by Infinite Campus, a web-based, mobile-friendly platform that its website boasts has the highest level of data security.

Schools use the platform to document information such as enrollment, attendance, grades, behavior, and class assignments.

Support staff, including nurses and secretaries, began using Infinite Campus in February when the District began converting information related to enrollment and health services.

Teachers and students were introduced to the system as the school year started, but parents won’t have access until January.

Shinale Muhammed, a parent of two students at Meredith and one at Central High, was told about the new changes during a parent teacher night at Central High. Between the grading policy and parent’s limited use of the new student information system, teachers and parents feel restricted, she said.

“We don’t want our students to feel like they can be lazy and get away with just enough to float by.”

Melanie Harris, chief information officer for the District, said it is part of a staged approach.

“You never release everything at one time,” she said. “Teachers are taking attendance. We turned it on for students. So we want to let everybody get comfortable with that.”

In the meantime, parents can access Infinite Campus through the student’s portal. In addition, Harris also explained that parents already have the old parent portal. "So we thought, 'We'll wait until January to focus on them." 

She also said the District authorized $22.5 million over 12 years for the program to cover costs such as training, maintenance, and technical licenses. So far they’ve spent $5.5 million over two years from the initial stages of the transition.

 

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