It was data review time again this week at my school–probably the country’s most popular PD activity of today.  My AP handed me a print out that included each teacher in our grades 6-12 school and the percentage of students he or she passed for the first semester.  What I saw was, for me, shocking. Teachers had wildly disparate pass rates for their classes.  Some teachers passed 100% of their students or very close to it.  Other teachers passed 50-60% of their students for the semester.  These rates did not seem to correlate in any coherent way to other things I knew about these teachers, such as number of years of experience, level of commitment to student learning, or general skill level as a teacher.  But looking at the data it was also clear that the disparities indicated more about the perspectives of teachers than they did about students.  And once again my discomfort with grading reared its bumbling head.

I realize I have surprisingly little knowledge of most of my colleagues’ grading practices.  I know we all have some sort of grading schema, with categories, each weighted a certain percentage, all adding up to 100%.  Some teachers weight homework heavily, others don’t.  Some teachers weight tests heavily, others don’t.  Some teachers enter a zero for a missed homework, others enter a 55%, and still others leave the assignment out of the student’s average altogether as if it never existed.  I know for my class, reading is a non-negotiable, so I set up my grading schema such that it’s impossible to pass the class without doing a substantial amount of reading.  So a failing grade often indicates a student didn’t complete a certain minimum amount of reading.  But the same is likely not true in another class, even of the same subject.

The more I think about, the less certain I am of what “pass” actually means.  I spoke to two of my close colleagues, both of whom attended NYC public schools themselves.  These are two teachers I respect very much and whose students work hard and clearly learn a lot in their classes.

The first teacher has a near 100% pass rate for all of her classes.  She said she calculates her grades based on a grading schema on our online grading system.  But then, she compares the number grade to what she thinks about the student.  She looks for evidence of what the student learned and knows how to do.  Whenever possible, she passes the student, even if the numbers don’t add up.  When I asked her why, she explained that middle school grades are used to determine what high school a student gets into in NYC.  She would hate to doom a student’s future based on choices they make in seventh grade, a time where adolescents are growing in so many ways and are often not aware of the impact of their behavior.  Mistakes made in seventh grade–that often have nothing to do with academic ability and everything to do with social-emotional development, which most middle schools currently give little attention and support–should not keep a student out of a competitive high school, she reasons.  Having taught seventh grade before, (and having been one myself) I do understand her point.

The second teacher has one of the lowest rates I saw, around 60%.  She says she sets a high standard for her students and doesn’t budge on her expectations.  She works hard to modify her instruction based on the needs of the students, but expects all students to work hard consistently–she herself worked hard to achieve at a high level in NYC public schools despite many obstacles.  If her students meet her standards, they will be prepared for any high school, whereas if she lowers her standards, she is certain many students won’t be able to succeed in competitive high schools.  If students fail her class, they are learning a hard lesson sooner rather than later, she reasons.  This too, makes sense to me.

Earlier in the year the administration asked each grade team to make a goal for the school year for our student pass rates.  As an 8th grade teacher, the pass or fail line becomes especially significant, because it determines who participates in the graduation ceremony and activities, and who is sent to summer school or retained for a second year of eighth grade. My grade team came up with a goal of a 90% (on-time) pass rate this year.  The number was somewhat arbitrary, but we chose it because we thought we could beat our rate from last year, which was around 80%, through better communication with students, parents, and increased interventions.

But the real can of worms we need to open up–if pass rates is going to be a key data point for our school–is how we understand and assess passing and failing, and how this definition fits into the mission of our school.  I don’t have the answer, but we should start by opening up dialogue on the topic.

Do any of your schools have a strong consensus on this issue?  If so, I would love to hear how you arrived at it.  I am concerned that, once again, we come up against the limitations of ascribing one number to stand for a student’s learning over a period of time.  Narrative evaluations, least in middle school, might do a better job of capturing the complexity of any one student.

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