March 6, 2009
By Joe Smydo
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
David Chard, dean of the Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, says there's little difference between most grading scales.
"It's like Celsius and Fahrenheit. It's exactly the same thing," he said.
Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the advocacy group FairTest, said a debate over grading scales often reveals the "tyranny of false precision."
"These numbers were not handed down by God on a stone tablet," he said.
To Robert Marzano, a Denver-based education researcher, the typical grading scale is an incomplete measure of student achievement. He recommends bar graphs measuring student achievement on various course topics.
As officials in the Pittsburgh Public Schools prepare to drop a controversial grading scale for a 5-point scale they're calling fairer and more accurate, Dr. Chard, Dr. Marzano and Mr. Schaeffer cautioned that no version is perfect.
All require some degree of teacher subjectivity, and all require careful, thoughtful application, Dr. Chard said.
Mr. Schaeffer said grading scale controversies generate "much more heat than light," yet Dallas and Fairfax, Va., also are in the midst of them now.
Dr. Marzano said as many as 3,000 schools or districts have made some of the improvements he favors, such as expanded report cards with bar graphs breaking down student achievement at the topic level while still giving overall course averages and letter grades. He said the bar graphs can correspond to five-point scales measuring achievement in the topic areas.
In the end, grading scales may matter less than parents believe. Colleges and universities routinely recalculate grade-point averages based on their own criteria or take other steps to get a clearer picture of applicants' credentials.
Carnegie Mellon University doesn't compare GPAs of applicants from different high schools. Besides GPA, officials also look at the strength of the applicant's course load, Greg Edleman, associate director of admission, said.
City school officials caused an uproar last fall with a memo directing teachers to record 50 percent as the minimum score a student could receive for homework, tests and assignments. If the student received 20 percent on an exam, the teacher had to put 50 percent in the grade book.
Officials said the policy had been in place for about a decade, and the memo was intended to boost compliance. Before the 50 percent minimum, students received a failing grade or E for all work scored from zero to 59 percent. Officials said that gave the E greater weight than other letter grades -- each separated by 10 percentage points -- and made it virtually impossible for students to recover from bad work.
Among other changes drawing criticism, Dallas schools largely did away with zeros, the Dallas Morning News reported. Dr. Chard said he is among educators who worry about students losing motivation because of the challenge of recovering from a string of zeros.
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