Mandatory Minimums for Youth

The Hartford school system has been no stranger to controversy. There’s the achievement gap, illiteracy and drop out rates, and racial isolation. There were bonuses doled out to teachers and paraprofessionals; these were intended to reward teachers for gains in CAPT scores, but many having nothing to do with that achievement benefited. There have been questions raised about the increase in district test scores; some have asserted that the sharp improvements are not due to mere student achievement, but to the mass exclusion of special education students.

Here’s something new to add to the list of complaints: mandatory minimum grades. Teachers in the Hartford school district are being told they are not permitted to assign a final grade lower than a 55 in any given marking period.

The practice of grade inflation itself is not a new one, though it’s not openly discussed for obvious reasons.

In the past, teachers could enter grades that accurately reflected what the students earned. If a student earned 12 points, the teacher could let the record show that this was the case. Administration could modify the grade, but the teacher would not be forced to lie about a student’s performance.

Now, we’re being informed that teachers are forced to artificially boost student grades. Not all are pleased about this. A group of teachers within the Hartford school system have decided they are sick of cheating students and bilking taxpayers. They have complained about this policy, which forces teachers to break the Connecticut Code of Professional Responsibility for Educators:

(h) The professional educator, in full recognition of the public trust vested in the profession, shall not:

(A) Exploit the educational institution for personal gain;
(B) Be convicted in a court of law of a crime involving moral turpitude or of any crime of such nature that violates such public trust; or
(C) Knowingly misrepresent facts or make false statements.

Beyond the professional code of ethics, some have spoken about how this forces them to break with their own personal codes of ethics. Some teachers are attempting to find ways of coping with this. One has said s/he would be adding 55 points to all students’ grades, making it so some are scoring 130 points. Another has informed the students about this new policy and encouraged them to have their parents bring concerns to the Board of Education.

One teacher I spoke with estimated that 25-35% of students are directly affected by the policy.

To learn more about this matter, I attempted to contact the principal of one high school in question, the Hartford Public Schools’ Director of External Communications, and Superintendent Adamowski. My requests for information regarding any school or district mandates on grading received no response from those three individuals by time of publication; however, another source within the system voluntarily passed along the Hartford Public Schools policies. In it, a grading policy is spelled out:

It is the philosophy of this district that students respond more positively to the opportunity for success than to the threat of failure. The district seeks to make achievement both recognizable and possible for students.

Achievement will be emphasized in the process of evaluating student performance. Evaluation of student progress is a primary responsibility of the teacher. The highest  possible level of student achievement is a common goal of both school and home. A close working relationship between home and school is essential to the accomplishment of this goal. Regular communication with parents or guardians, utilizing a variety of means, about the scholastic progress of their student is a basic component of this working relationship.

Regularly used report cards, combined with scheduled parent-teacher conferences, publication of quarterly honor rolls, and other communication vehicles helps promote a process of continuous evaluation of student performance.

The Board of Education shall approve the grading and reporting systems as developed by the administration and faculty and upon the recommendation of the Superintendent of Schools.

The above policy is apparently outdated.

When teachers asked to see the new policy, they have been told that it’s “the Board” policy, but were given no documentation. When I spoke with a member of the Board of Education, s/he said s/he had no knowledge about such a policy. The angered teachers have contacted the Hartford Federation of Teachers union. Andrea Johnson, the HFT President, spoke with Superintendent Adamowski about the policy; it’s reported that Adamowski had no knowledge of it.

Concerned teachers met with the principal of their high school this past week to discuss the policy. Later, this principal sent an email to teachers at his/her school. In it, s/he acknowledges the “directive to change all F’s to 55”  and that “A 55 constitutes failing and no credit, so we will follow the directive to have quarter failures recorded as 55” [sic]. The language of the email is such that teachers are at once reassured of their qualifications for judging whether or not a student has mastered the skills of a course, but then informed that they must “shift [their] thinking from completion of work to demonstration of learning.”

Even without any documented policy, the content of this email makes it clear that the principal at at least one high school is enforcing it and is willing to allow a student’s performance on a single test to demonstrate learning. Students need not complete any work during the school year, just so long as they can do well enough on one test at the end of it.

While no teachers I spoke with had this document and no administrators could be bothered to confirm or dispute the allegations of mandatory minimum grades, a concerned parent who included no real name in his/her correspondence contacted the Board of Education about this grade inflation and attached a document, apparently from The Office of Academics, dated January 25, 2011. The document’s origins seem mysterious, as it is not on any recognizable letterhead. According to this document, the new policy includes:

Although the teachers I spoke with say they have yet to receive a formal piece of documentation about this new policy, it was made “very clear” that they “have no choice” but to follow the rules.

It appears that retaining teachers is less of a priority than retaining students.

There is an inherent unfairness of such policies — a student who has been absent for months is given a high enough grade to keep him in the game, while a student earning an 80, for instance, is not given an equal grade boost, providing her with a final grade of a 135. Students are being made aware of this policy and the more conscientious, higher achieving ones are enraged and voicing their resentment without mincing their words.

Beyond this unfairness, there are other issues to consider. Other school policies are not being enforced. After five absences, students are supposed to receive no credit in a class; now, there is no real consequence for high absenteeism.

Schools that practice grade inflation may lose credibility, thus damaging students when applying to colleges and universities. With a false sense of one’s abilities, a student can head to college, expecting to continue to receive grades, rather than earn them. Once in college/university, that student will be either in remedial classes or quickly flunking out. In the work force, the former student will have a wake up call when he is expected to perform beyond his abilities. Moreover, the practice of grade inflation can foster a sense of entitlement.

Forcing teachers who assign unearned grades is an abuse of authority. These teachers are required to lie, or else risk “evaluation retribution.”

In Texas, it is illegal for districts to institute minimum grade policies. Before this ban, some districts required teachers to assign grades no lower than a predetermined number; some mandated no students receive grades below a 70! In Mississippi a teacher who refused to submit to the minimum grade system was written up for insubordination, according to the Clarion-Ledger. One ponders the legality of the minimum grade policy here.

Proponents of these mandatory minimums claim that failing grades cause students to lose hope and push them toward dropping out of school.

Disclaimer: I am opposed to anonymity under normal circumstances; however, in this case, it seems that sources face a very real threat of being reprimanded and/or suffering job loss should their identities be revealed. I have confirmed the identities of all sources who wished to remain anonymous.