For the Philadelphia School District, a new term brings a controversial new grading policy — one that either levels the playing field for students or weakens academic standards, depending on whom you ask.
In the past, students who earned a 64 or below flunked, and teachers had latitude to enter report-card grades as low as zero for students who did no work. Beginning with report cards issued in November, pupils who receive grades from 60 to 69 will pass with D's, and no scores lower than a 50 will be permitted.
Teachers at the high-school level are also being directed to use uniform standards for assigning those report-card grades — using test marks to make up 40 percent of a student's grade, 30 percent for performance-based learning such as projects and labs, 20 percent for classwork, and 10 percent for homework.
That worries Keziah Ridgeway, a social studies teacher at Northeast High, the city's largest school.
"How are we creating students that want to work hard if they know they can show up, do the bare minimum, and pass?" said Ridgeway, a Philadelphia teacher for five years. "We're not going to be competitive if we keep lowering the bar."
Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. said Philadelphia was moving to align with many other systems, and to give students the ability to progress, even if they flub part of the year.
"This is a grading scale that we feel is fairer to young people, that gives young people a chance so they will continue to try," said Hite. "A zero dooms a child. If that's the first grade they receive in the school year, it's fatal."
But some teachers feel the changes water down standards. Ridgeway, the Northeast teacher, wants her students to excel. She stays after school, offering extra help and opportunities for success. But the new policy, she said, "just helps the numbers of students moving to the next grade."
When Ismael Jimenez, a history teacher at Kensington High School for Creative and Performing Arts, reviewed his course syllabus with students the first week of school, they picked up on the changes immediately, he said.
"Organically, some of the kids said, 'That means the school looks better, because fewer kids are failing,' " Jimenez said. "I'm really worried that students will slack off more. They only have to show up sometimes, do well on a few tests, and they're walking away with a 60."
Cheryl Logan, the district's chief of academic supports, said the changes were developed with educator input and were designed to level the playing field. She disagreed with the notion that the shifts water down grades.
"In the high-school space, we have not had consistent marking guidelines, and now we do," Logan said. "We revisited both grading scale and marking guidelines."
Though polices are still a mishmash, some grading-scale shifts are happening in districts nationally, with schools moving to unify standards and eliminate zeros as possible report-card grades. Locally, Lower Merion schools adjusted their grading policy in 2016, expanding the grade range that earned students A's (90 to 100, from 93 to 100) and shifting the starting point for failing grades from 64 to 59.
Christopher Shaffer, deputy chief of curriculum, instruction, and assessments, stressed that Philadelphia teachers could still dole out zeroes for individual assignments; the new policy applies only to term grades. For report cards, he said, it is only fair that each letter grade corresponds to the same 10-point increment; prior to the shift, A's through C's had 10-point scales, but a D had only a five-point range. F's took up 65 points in the scale.
"If a student demonstrated that they met the minimum criteria for passing, that would remain the same, even under the new scale," said Shaffer. It will be up to teachers to recalibrate based on the new system, he said.
Officials said it was too soon to say whether the new policy would affect the district's graduation rate or the percentage of students who pass from grade to grade on time.
For most of the 20th century, grades were registered on a simple five-mark scale: A through F. That changed when computerized grading systems became the norm, said Thomas Guskey, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky who studies grading.
A system where two-thirds of grades mean failure is problematic, Guskey said; grades ought to convey information about student learning, not punish students in ways they can't recover from. A simple number system would be much clearer and fairer, he said.
"These cutoffs in terms of percentages are always so arbitrary," Guskey said. "It's more about getting teachers to say, 'What do you expect for excellent performance?' "
Though some teachers have a problem giving a 50 to students who do no work, teacher Adam Blyweiss sees the value in losing the zero. But he worries about what the grade shift means.
"It has the potential to do our students a disservice by giving them a grade that looks good on paper but that colleges and employers won't take seriously," said Blyweiss, who teaches college and career readiness at Mastbaum High. "The district demands high expectations of its teachers and then something like this undercuts them. They promote high expectations to students, and something like this coddles them."
Administrators have also gotten pushback on the marking guidelines, which mandate the weight educators assign to tests, projects, classwork, and homework in report-card grades. While some educators welcome the uniformity, others fear the scale ties teachers' hands and does not take into account differences across schools and subjects.
One teacher at Kensington Health Sciences Academy said the system "de-professionalizes teachers."
"I can't accept the cookie-cutter, everybody-has-to-do-their-grades-the-same-way approach," said the teacher, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal. In a school such as Kensington Health Sciences, where schoolwide achievement is low, "if we make tests 40 percent of our grades, then more kids are going to fail."
Jerry Jordan, the teachers' union president, agrees with Hite and Logan — zeros are not useful, and "it's incumbent on us as educators to give children the opportunity to succeed." Grades should mean the same thing in districts around the region, he said.
With the school year just underway, most parents are not yet aware of the grade shifts.
Leslie Patterson-Tyler, who has two daughters in city schools, said that failing a child should not be taken lightly but that no child should earn a passing grade if he or she hasn't learned the subject material.
"I'm concerned about children being prepared to be able to compete," said Patterson-Tyler. "That's what we should be focusing on."