Officials defend grade policy

City schools keep minimum scores

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Pittsburgh Public Schools administrators last night defended a controversial policy that sets 50 percent as the minimum score a student may receive for classroom work, homework or marking periods, saying it's fair and mathematically logical.

The presentation to the school board Education Committee signaled that officials may tweak the policy but don't plan to abandon it. The handful of board members who attended the meeting -- Theresa Colaizzi, Sherry Hazuda, Bill Isler and Thomas Sumpter -- offered little argument.

Some students have said they'd rather take a 50 percent than do work, and some are "shutting down" academically once they're satisfied with the grades they've compiled, according to a report by Jerri Lippert, executive director of curriculum, instruction and professional development.

There's also the complaint that the policy amounts to grade inflation and gives failing students a free ride.

The district and Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers ignited the controversy in September with a joint memo outlining the policy, which they said had already been in place in some schools for years.

The district was skewered on radio shows and blogs, and a backlash from teachers prompted the district and union to form a committee to consider modifications. The committee meets again today.

Last night, for the first time, administrators publicly defended the policy to the board, saying the 50 percent minimum gives struggling students a chance to recover academically and an incentive to stay in school.

Under the policy, work scored from 100 percent to 90 percent is an A, from 89 percent to 80 percent a B, from 79 percent to 70 percent a C, from 69 percent to 60 percent a D and from 59 percent to 50 percent an E, the failing grade. Work may not be scored lower than 50 percent.

Dr. Lippert called the policy mathematically sound. If the E ranged from 59 percent to zero, she said, it would carry more weight than passing grades.

The board also discussed proposed changes to the eight accelerated learning academies, which opened in August 2006 with a school year 10 days longer and a school day 45 minutes longer than the district standard.

Christiana Otuwa, executive director of the academies, proposed cutting two days from the calendar and about 20 minutes from the school day. The changes would take effect next school year.

Correction/Clarification: (Published Jan. 8, 2009) Pittsburgh Public Schools officials are considering a proposal to cut two days from the school year of the district's accelerated learning academies, beginning in 2009-10. This story as originally published Jan. 7, 2009 inaccurately said the proposal was to cut eight days from the schools' calendar.

Joe Smydo can be reached at or 412-263-1548.


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