Baltimore school officials are investigating allegations at a middle school that dozens of students were given passing grades so they could move on to the next grade, even though their teachers had given them failing marks.
Grade changes are being investigated at Booker T. Washington Middle School. Several teachers from the school told The Baltimore Sun that dozens of the grades they issued of 50 percent, the lowest possible, were later changed to 90 percent.
In some cases, students who never attended class received higher grades than students who showed up and did the work, according to the teachers, who spoke to The Sun on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
Sonja Santelises, chief academic officer for the school system, said district officials are "aware of the allegations and are in the middle of the investigation" at Booker T. Washington. She also said district officials are in the process of "furthering" the investigation into possible grade changes at other schools "to see just how widespread it could possibly be."
In addition, Santelises said, the school system plans to issue "more specific guidance" regarding districtwide policies that discourage holding students back a grade and encourage exhausting all options to help them pass. She said some schools could have misinterpreted the policies. She declined to comment further about Booker T. Washington, citing the pending investigation.
A decades-old debate has brewed in the school system about the district's grading policies and standards for promoting students to the next grade. As recently as 2011, the policies have been tweaked in an attempt to decrease subjectivity. Research shows that holding students back multiple times can be detrimental to their academic careers.
The Booker T. Washington teachers said changes were made to their students' grades in the school's computerized "student management system" without their knowledge. In that system, 60 percent represents a passing D-minus grade, and more than 90 percent an A.
"Two or three days after the school year, I checked the [student management system], and I couldn't believe it — my 50 [percent] students went up to the 90," recalled one teacher, who found that nearly 20 grades were changed.
A 50 percent is failing.
"In all cases, the exact grade that the student needed to pass, they got. Kids who were literally not present at all had gotten the same grades as those who were. Some of them walked out with higher grades than the kids who actually tried and could only manage a C," the teacher said.
It was not clear who may have changed the grades. Santelises said that "once grades are finalized, anyone with administrative access to the student management system can change grades." Access can also be granted to nonadministrators by principals.
Repeated calls to the school's principal and assistant principal were not returned.
Jimmy Gittings, president of the city's administrators union, said he was aware of the allegations and was working with school officials to resolve the matter.
Santelises said that the district's policies allow for a myriad of options to help students pass, including raising students' grades if they complete extra work. But she emphasized that in all cases, grades should be earned.
"We, as a district, have made sure that at every step of the way, students have options and safety nets to get back on track with their schoolwork," Santelises said. "I think what happens is you have 200-plus schools, and different interpretations based on different circumstances, and people misinterpreting what the actual practice should look like.
"We in no way endorse, encourage or tolerate the abuse of the policy. … What we're very clear about is that the grade changes need to be substantiated. If they are not, that is just unethical."
The Booker T. Washington teachers said the school's administrators had told teachers that efforts to prevent students from failing needed to be ramped up as the school year came to a close.
Santelises said there was no districtwide target for the number of students who can be held back a grade. She said, however, that the district discourages teachers from retaining students in kindergarten through eighth grade more than twice.
The Booker T. Washington teachers said they allowed students to do extra work, such as multiple projects, to help them pass. The efforts followed months of interventions, including parent meetings, home visits and other measures, to ensure students and families knew students were at risk of failing.
"We weren't against the idea of helping them because we wanted them to pass, but we wanted them to pass because they did the work," recalled the teacher with nearly 20 grade changes. "I had kids who really turned it around and surprised the hell out of me. Then I had kids who just didn't care."
Another teacher said several students had been given grades of 50 percent for a quarter. But a spreadsheet provided to The Sun showed that days after the school year ended, the grades that had been entered by the teacher were changed to 90 percent.
The changes, according to the teacher, ensured the students who had failed received a passing grade for the year.
"It's an unfathomable moral failing to give students A's when they earn low F's," the teacher said. "It creates perverse incentives against real academic achievement."
The Baltimore Teachers Union did not respond to inquiries about the investigation and the debate over the district's policies on grades, promotion and retention.
In 2006, school board members and parents objected to the school system's decision to reduce the minimum passing grade from 70 percent to 60 percent. District officials argued the 70 percent mark was too high and inconsistent with the grading scales of the rest of the state, but opponents said the move would lower standards.
In 2011 a policy took effect that prohibited teachers from giving students less than 50 percent for the quarter. Mathematically, that could mean that a student could miss half of the school year and still pass the class.
The policy is unique among area school districts. Only Anne Arundel County has a similar rule — for schoolwork, not grades.
Anne Arundel policy states that teachers can assign a grade of 50 percent for individual assignments "for which the student made a good faith effort as determined by the teacher, to meet the basic requirements." The policy also states: "If a student does no work on an assignment or assessment, the teacher shall assign a grade of zero."
Anne Arundel officials said they implemented the policy after considering the 50 percent rule for quarterly grades — a highly contested proposal that was rejected.
"There was a pretty vocal contention from teachers during the roll-out, who said that if I give them a 50, then I'm giving them something for nothing," said Bob Mosier, Anne Arundel's spokesman, of the policy that was rejected.
Parents have been equally critical of the automatic 50 percent policy in Baltimore City.
Melanie Hood-Wilson, a former city teacher, former vice president of the Parent Community Advisory Board and parent of two city students, said she understands the policy was created to allow students to rebound from a rough academic period but that it sends the wrong message about responsibility.
"While I think that that's very noble, I know that here are students who are well aware of how low of a grade they can get and be able to recover after a semester," Hood-Wilson said. "And setting up a system that allows students to miss key foundational coursework because they're playing a numbers game enables them to lose, enables the system to lose."
The rationale, said Santelises, who created the policy, is to give students hope even if they fail a quarter.
"Part of the spirit of the 50 [percent] is to actually make sure that, given the diversity of our population, young people still have options and still see themselves as being engaged in the process," she said. "It means nothing if we have high standards and are not supporting young people to meet them."