Las Vegas Sun

April 23, 2024

A floor for failing grades

Parents, educators debate whether kids should get 50 points for doing nothing


Steve Marcus

Tam Larnerd, principal of Miller Middle School in Henderson, talks with students during lunch. Like other school administrators in Clark County, Larnerd has been experimenting with grading policies — in his case, the penalty imposed on students for turning in homework assignments late.

When it comes to calculating grades, some Clark County schools are using new math: 0+0 = 50 percent.

At those schools, 50 is the lowest score a teacher can put on a student’s report card, even if no homework was completed during the semester and every test resulted in a score of zero.

At Thurman White Middle School in Henderson, an effort to set a higher “minimum F” began just as report cards were being finalized two weeks ago.

Sherry Harmon, the mother of a seventh grader at the school, said Friday she has mixed feelings about the concept.

“Eventually, kids are going to have to go on to college and into the real world. What happens when someone isn’t going to give them 50 points for doing nothing?”

Gina Freedain, whose daughter is in eighth grade at White, said, “The kids would know they could slack off a little more and still get by. If they’re studying and putting in at least some effort, they should be able to pull a C. If they can’t, maybe they shouldn’t be in the class at all.”

Advocates of the more generous policy that makes 50 the minimum F say it is intended to give weaker students a better chance of passing. It is aimed at keeping them from being prematurely doomed by the numbers that are behind report card letter grades.

The district’s electronic grading system converts each student’s numerical scores to letter grades. All scores below 60 — whether they are 59, 29 or zero — earn an F. The numerical scores carry through, however, and determine the final letter grades for each semester and school year. So if a student has a very low F in the first half of a semester, it could cause him to fail the class even if he dramatically improves his performance in the second half.

There is heated debate in the education community, in Clark County and across the nation, over grading policies and which approach best motivates students to take their schoolwork more seriously.

There is no minimum numerical grade written into Clark County School District policy, and it’s unclear how many of the district’s campuses are using the minimum F in their grading formulas because the central office does not keep track.

The Sun found that some campuses have had the policy in place for years, and others are trying it out.

As principal of Silvestri Middle School, Debbie Brockett set the bottom score for quarter and semester grades at 50. She took over as principal of Las Vegas High School in August, and in early January, she told her staff she wanted to put the same policy in place there.

The ensuing debate “got a little heated,” Brockett said. “Teachers didn’t want to inflate grades by allowing kids to have points they did not earn.”

She realized the timing of the discussion — two weeks before final grades went out — wasn’t fair, so she pulled back.

“It’s hard for me because this is a philosophy I believe in,” she said. “What we have to figure out now is what will best help the kids who are really struggling. I don’t believe that handing out zeros is the answer.”

At Thurman White Middle School, the administration’s approach to grading reform was heavier-handed.

On Jan. 18, the last day of the semester, Vice Principal Jerry Cornell told teachers to raise failing grades for the first two quarters of the year to a minimum of 59 percent, sources told the Sun.

In a memo sent later that day, the school’s educational computing strategist explained how to go into the school’s electronic grade book and make the changes.

“If a student has a 24 percent for a quarter grade, adjusting that student’s grade to 59 percent is still an F,” according to the memo obtained by the Sun. “By adjusting the student’s grade, this gives the student the opportunity to improve their grades in the next semester.”

Cornell could not be reached for comment. White’s principal, Danielle Miller, told the Sun she was out of town on Jan. 18 and Cornell’s instructions did not come from her.

Miller said she had previously spoken with some of the school’s teachers about what she viewed as problems in the grading system — that one quarter’s low score could cancel out the rest of the semester’s hard work. That only leaves students discouraged, Miller said.

She could not explain why the vice principal had given teachers instructions to raise failing grades.

“This was not my intention,” Miller said. “I don’t think anyone should change their grades and I would never tell my teachers to do that.”

It was unknown whether any teachers at White raised failing grades. Teachers have already submitted their semester grades to the district, and report cards will be distributed at schools Wednesday.

Andre Denson, southeast region superintendent, said he was aware of the situation at White and planned to follow up.

“If there’s an inconsistent message within the school, it’s up to the principal to make sure everyone is on the same page,” he said.

The instruction to raise all failing scores to 59 “doesn’t make sense mathematically,” Denson said.

When he was principal at Mojave High School several years ago, Denson set the minimum F at 50. That decision came after a series of meetings, often heated, with teachers and parents.

To Denson, the logic was clear.

“What do we tell our students who are failing in October — ‘Go home, there’s no hope for you, come back in January’? With the 50 percent minimum, a kid has a chance. Some of them took it, some didn’t.”

Denson has formed a task force to look at elementary school grading, and discussions on the minimum F will likely be next. He has no intention of issuing a regional mandate, however.

The district “regulation states very clearly that below 60 percent is an F, but where the bottom is was never identified,” Denson said. “That was done deliberately so schools could have that dialogue themselves.”

School Board President Mary Beth Scow said she’s concerned there isn’t uniformity in grading policies among the district’s schools. That was the goal in 2006 when the board mandated that middle and high school teachers give equal weight to each half of each semester and not count the final exam as more than 20 percent of the final grade.

“We want schools to be empowered and make their own decisions, but some things need to be standard,” Scow said.

Resetting the scale at 50 “gives students a false sense of achievement,” said Mary Ella Holloway, president of the Clark County Education Association. ‘What do you do with the child who doesn’t do anything for nine weeks?”

Some of the nation’s larger school districts are facing similar debates.

In Texas, for example, teachers are petitioning the Dallas School Board for permission to hand out grades below 50 percent.

Douglas Reeves, an education consultant, said the first question should be whether grades are solely to rank students against one another, or to help provide motivation, feedback and encouragement.

Studies have shown that when teachers stop handing out zeros, “you have better performance and better morale,” Reeves said.

But it may take more than a new district policy to motivate students.

Whether the bottom score is zero or 50, “some kids just don’t care,” said Ryan Chahoc, an eighth grade honor student at White. “Some want to work hard. Some just don’t. I don’t think that’s going to change.”

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