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From Zero to Fifty: Harrisburg school administrators defend grading policy aimed at increasing graduation rates.

Harrisburg City School District administrators briefed reporters today on the district’s grading policy. From left: student services supervisor Marianne Peters, chief academic officer Jaimie Foster, superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney, and human resources director Curtis Tribue.

Harrisburg City School District officials today defended a grading policy that makes it possible for low-performing students to pass classes, while denying that it lowers academic standards across the district.

Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney and senior administrators addressed reporters this afternoon about a policy that establishes a minimum grade of 50 percent on student report cards.

The policy was previously in place in the school district and re-implemented for the 2017-18 school year, chief academic officer Jaimie Foster said.

Even though Harrisburg teachers continue to grade tests, classwork and homework assignments on a 100-point scale, any student with a class average below 50 percent will see a 50 on her report card.

The 50 is still a failing grade, but district officials hope that the new minimum will encourage students to improve their performance and pass classes they were previously failing.

“It’s important for students to know that they have a fighting chance,” Foster said, who later explained that the purpose of the policy is to increase cohort graduation rates. “The goal is to get [them] out in four years.”

Foster explained that extremely low grades make it almost impossible for students to overcome poor marking periods and pass classes.

For example, if a student has a 20 percent average for the first and second marking periods, she would have to pull off a 100-percent average for the rest of the year to obtain a 60-percent final grade and pass the course.

Administrators fear that students who log poor grades at the beginning of the school year will “come back to the next marking period ready to fail again,” Foster said.

But if that same student receives a 50 percent on her report card for the first two terms, a final passing grade becomes much more attainable. She would only need to maintain a 70-percent average for the remainder of the year to pass the class.

The district did not adjust its 60-percent passing grade when it adopted the 50-percent minimum policy, Foster said.

Foster and Knight-Burney said that the policy is common practice in urban and suburban school districts. Districts in Prince George’s County and Fairfax County, Va., implemented a similar policy in 2016, according to a report in Education Week.

The goal of the 50-percent policy is to increase graduation rates, Foster said, but it’s too early to tell if it’s been effective. The district will not report its 2017-18 graduation rate to the Pennsylvania Department of Education until October, when it can account for summer school graduates.

The district will need to monitor its cohort graduation rates over the course of at least two years to see if the policy minimum has helped more students pass to the next grade level, Foster said.

A Pennsylvania school performance report card shows a 55-percent graduation rate for the district in 2017. That figure represents the average of Harrisburg High School’s three campuses – the John Harris Campus, SciTech Campus and Cougar Academy, a blended online learning program.

District officials could not provide graduation rates for each individual campus.

Harrisburg administrators rejected claims that the policy lowered standards for students. Knight-Burney said she was surprised to learn that some parents and community members consider it a “handout” that makes it easier for students to obtain passing grades.

“The goal is not to give anyone a handout,” Foster said. “It’s to give everyone a leg up.”

The policy aligns with some of the principles of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaced No Child Left Behind as the federal education law in 2015. ESSA creates new accountability standards for public schools by prioritizing student growth — how much a student learns over time — over proficiency standards such as test scores.

ESSA also emphasizes the role of consistent student attendance. Pennsylvania’s ESSA plan will require schools to track chronic absenteeism, which is defined as a student missing 10 or more days of school each year. Researchers say that chronic absenteeism is the single greatest indicator of a student’s graduation odds.

TheBurg reported in February that the district’s average daily attendance rates indicate a high rate of chronic absenteeism. Forty-five percent of students were chronically absent during the 2013-14 school year, the last year for which data is publicly available.

Student services supervisor Marianne Peters said today that the district is committed to curbing chronic absenteeism through family interventions.

The administrators declined to comment on an ongoing, internal investigation that arose in response to concerns about the grading policy.

A district spokeswoman confirmed the existence of the investigation to TheBurg last week, after it reported that Lisa Love, principal at John Harris High School, was put on leave while the investigation was underway.

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