When teachers learned last school year that the District was planning to replace the ironically named “Gradespeed,” we were initially hopeful that the new grading system would be faster and more user-friendly. The new system, “Infinite Campus,” does offer some useful features, but it also appears to be a Trojan horse, concealing three harmful policy changes in the guise of shiny new technology.
The first two changes, setting 50 as the absolute floor for a student’s quarterly grade and lowering a passing grade from 65 to 60, will artificially inflate graduation rates by simply lowering the standards for graduation. The last change, mandating four fixed grading categories regardless of student age or subject matter, will rob teachers of the ability to exercise professional judgment in designing assessments for their classes. These changes reflect two common trends in urban schools. Instead of providing more rigorous supports for students who are behind, the District lowers standards. Instead of empowering teachers to create learning spaces that meet the unique needs of their students, the District imposes an uninformed, one-size-fits-all policy.
The changes to minimum grades make it much easier for students to pass. With 60 as a passing grade, along with the fixed 50 floor for quarterly grades, a student can now earn one 90 (in the first quarter, for example) and do no more work (or even come to school) for the rest of the year, but still pass.
These changes seem part of a broader effort to manipulate graduation rates. Starting last year, the District signed a contract with the company Edgenuity for online “grade improvement” courses. According to the District’s quarterly fiscal report, dated May 15, 2017, the District gave $203,105 to Edgenuity in that quarter alone. With Edgenuity, students who had failed classes could, with as little as 10 hours of online class time, revise failing marks to passing grades (then a 65).
Back in May, Zoë Kirsch at Slate.com detailed how districts across the country are using these online “credit recovery” classes to boost graduation rates. She cited one study, by the American Institutes for Research, that showed that students using such classes to “make up freshman algebra” perform significantly more poorly than those in traditional classrooms. The article also detailed how students used online search engines to quickly work through these classes and contended that in some cases, students paid others to complete online coursework for them.
Here in Philadelphia, Superintendent William Hite has touted rising graduation rates as a sign that his leadership has been effective. And although it is unclear how much programs like online credit recovery have contributed to the increase in the graduation rate, we do know that raising that rate is an important marker for this administration. Schools, too, are fixated on graduation rates, because a major part of each school’s state evaluation, the School Performance Profile, is based on improving that statistic. We are concerned that this pressure to raise graduation rates will not result in better-educated students, but rather in a larger number of graduates who have not met basic standards. If we want better outcomes for our students, we need to provide more and better resources, not simply “juke the stats.”
Nationwide, only 40 percent of high school seniors are proficient in reading. For black and Latinx students, who make up the majority of Philadelphia’s student population, these numbers are much lower. Raising the graduation rate is meaningless unless we are also investing the resources necessary for students to learn to read and succeed beyond high school.
We also object to the District’s insistence that all classes use fixed categories and percentages for grade calculation: 40% for tests, 30% for “performance-based learning,” 20% for classwork, and 10% for homework. As far as we can tell, these percentages are not based on any research study or pedagogical philosophy. In general, they give too much weight to test-taking, which already has a too-prominent place in city schools. And although a 40 percent weight on testing may be appropriate in some subjects and some grades, in others it is nonsensical. Should 40 percent of a student’s middle-school art grade be based on tests?
Hite has justified this policy as a way to standardize the process for grading students across schools and make it easier for parents to understand how their children’s grades are calculated. However, Hite himself suggested that teachers can enter projects into the test category, undercutting his own argument for clarity and standardization. In fact, most teachers we know are finding ways around the new grading categories (for example, by entering all grades into the “classwork” category), proving that the policy is simply another bureaucratic hurdle for teachers that will add no real value for students or parents.
In cases like this, it is important to remember that teachers are the experts on child development and learning. They work closely with their students every day, and they constantly think about effective assessment. Most teachers have created and refined grading systems over many years, with the intention of challenging students to do their best work. Teacher-generated grading policies take into consideration the specific culture of a school, and the best teachers adjust their grading throughout the year as they learn about their student’s strengths and weaknesses as learners. The best teachers are, as the scholar Lisa Delpit says, the warm demanders who “expect a great deal of their students, convince them of their own brilliance, and help them to reach their potential in a disciplined and structured environment.”
Instead of supporting teachers in this work, the District has shown a blatant disregard for our professional judgment. As much as possible, teachers should be given discretion when it comes to creating a classroom environment that supports learning. When the District considers modifications to important policies, such as changes to the way students are assessed, it should consult with teachers. When the District invests millions of dollars in curricular materials, they should first ask teachers and students what they need. One primary reason that teacher attrition is so high and there is a national shortage of qualified educators is that teachers want a bigger voice in school policies and plans.
As Philly teachers, we know that urban schools have much lower graduation rates than their suburban counterparts. As members of the Caucus of Working Educators, we see this as a symptom of the systemic underfunding of the schools where children of color and poor children are educated. If we want Philly’s children to graduate at the same rate as children in Lower Merion, we need to fund our schools in the way that Lower Merion does. Artificially raising the graduation rates is just a way to paper over a very serious injustice.
Steve Petro teaches at the Academy at Palumbo. Amber Burnett teaches at Abraham Lincoln High School. Shaw MacQueen teaches at Mitchell Elementary.