New Pittsburgh Grading Policy Deemed Deceptive, Bad for Students

Published December 1, 2008

A leading Pennsylvania free-market research organization says a newly enforced school grading policy in the state’s second-largest city is poorly conceived and marks a further step away from meaningful reform.

On September 16, Pittsburgh Public Schools issued a memorandum calling for the enforcement of a little-used district-wide grading policy that has been on the books since 1994. The policy says students will receive no less than 50 percent credit on assigned tests and homework, regardless of effort or proficiency.

That means a zero score will automatically be replaced with half-credit. School district standards register any score below 60 percent as an E, or failing grade.

Nathan Benefield, director of policy research at the Harrisburg-based Commonwealth Foundation, believes Pittsburgh’s grading policy sets a poor standard.

“That’s really a perverse incentive,” Benefield said. “Rather than pushing students to do better, it gives them the incentive to do nothing and still get 50 percent. If I knew I could [never] get [less than] 50 percent, why would I ever study?”

Staying on Track

John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, says teachers and administrators could address that issue separately.

“If a child thinks they’re going to just get a 50 without doing anything, that becomes a behavior issue,” Tarka said.

Instead, Tarka says the 50 percent floor is needed to prevent students who get off to a difficult start in the school year from falling behind to the point of inevitable failure.

“We want to make sure that children do achieve, but we also want to make sure that children aren’t put in a position from which they can’t extricate themselves,” Tarka said.

Raising Questions

Benefield disagrees, saying the grading policy doesn’t benefit students in the long run.

“They’re not doing the kids any favors, really,” Benefield said. “Just lowering standards to pass kids along is not really helping anyone.”

Tarka says teacher opinion is mixed on the policy’s 50 percent floor, and it has been especially unwelcome among high school instructors who are used to giving out zeroes as a way to indicate to parents when students aren’t doing their assigned work.

“We still have some wrinkles to iron out in this policy,” Tarka said.

Obscuring Performance

But Benefield shares the basis of these teachers’ concerns, noting the grading policy could hamper parents’ ability to get a true sense of their children’s school progress.

“It may be indicative that if a student can’t get 50 percent on these tests, then they will need remediation,” Benefield said. “It doesn’t really tell parents how far behind their children are.”

According to the local Pittsburgh Tribune-Review newspaper, many parents also expressed their disapproval with the grading policy.

However, Tarka believes the 50 percent minimum establishes a fairer practice that doesn’t “put such an extraordinary weight on a failing grade.”

Wrong Direction

Benefield says the revised grading policy provides further evidence Pittsburgh Public Schools is headed in the wrong direction. A Commonwealth Foundation analysis released in August revealed only 20 percent of the district’s eighth-graders are proficient by the standards of national reading tests, while the statewide average is 36 percent.

Meanwhile, data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education indicate Pittsburgh spent nearly $20,000 per student in the 2006-07 school year.

To put district budget dollars to more effective use, Benefield suggests raising standards is only the beginning of the solution.

“They also need school choice in Pittsburgh badly,” Benefield said, noting the state’s tuition tax credit program is too limited to address the needs of enough of the city’s students.

Pittsburgh Public Schools officials did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a think tank in Golden, Colorado.

For more information …

A Pennsylvania School Report Card: How the Commonwealth’s Public Schools Stack Up to the Rest of the Nation, by David V. Anderson, Commonwealth Foundation, August 2008: