How do you make things better for students at risk of failing?
The Bayonne school district has decided the answer is by lowering the passing grade, something that has appalled parents, who called it “dumbing down” the education system.
The Bayonne Board of Education approved lowering passing grades from the traditional 70 to 65 at a July 25 meeting, as part of a three-year pilot program designed to keep students who are at risk of failing from dropping out of school.
A study conducted by the school district earlier this year concluded that by giving kids an extra range of what is considered passing, the school district would have a better chance to keep them in school. The lower grade, however, is only one part of a comprehensive program that would require these at-risk kids to get extra help, such as before and after school instruction as well as a summer rescue program. This would affect about 9,600 students in the school system.
The idea behind this is to keep kids in school where they can receive the additional help they need, rather than hold them back a grade and increase the probability that they will get discouraged and quit school entirely.
The study, which was presented to the Board of Education in April, suggested that by taking a series of actions, such as preventing students who are on the margins from failing, the school may be able to significantly reduce dropout rates and may even motivate students to achieve higher grades in the future.
School officials said state and federal funding are tied to passing grades and that the Bayonne school district is at a disadvantage to other school districts that have lowered their passing grades.
Faced with new, even more stringent standards, the school district needs to be more proactive in keeping students in school and finding a way for them to pass.
No state standard for passing grade
The state has set no standard for a passing grade, leaving it up to school districts to set their own. Passing grades for school districts statewide vary from as low as 60. Bayonne, Jersey City and Secaucus are the only school districts in Hudson County that have recently maintained 70 as a passing grade.
“Even St. Peter’s Prep uses a lower number,” said Vice Principal Leo Smith.
And so do a number of higher-income areas of the state such as Livingston, Hillsborough and Summit.
Schools Superintendent Dr. Patricia McGeehan pointed out that even the Hudson County Schools of Technology has lowered it passing grade to 65.
“They are our biggest competition,” she said. “A student can go there and know they can pass at 65.”
But one parent asked how Bayonne can be compared to what’s going on in other towns.
“Maybe those towns should look at our school standards and do what we do, not the other way around,” said Cherie LaPelusa.
“We are not lowering our standards by lowering this grade,” said Rosalie Mora, director of the district’s Title I programs. “We still maintain the same high standards. We’re just giving these students a chance to stay in school and not fail. We are not dumbing down our schools. If anything we will have higher standards going into the new school year.”
Tied to the grade are key extracurricular activities that usually help motivate students to stay in school such as sports, which require a student to have a passing grade for them to be involved.
But one parent mockingly pointed out that a student can be scrubbed from extracurricular activities for failure to wear a school uniform, but not for failing to meet the current passing grade of 70.
Another parent feared that this was designed to support high school athletes who could not play if their grades were failing.
Old letter grades inaccurate
The study was conducted by a district committee made up of central office administrators, directors, academic support coaches and teachers, who gathered data from the district and other school districts regarding the grading policies.
Moran noted that the number grades are more accurate than the letter grades that the school district once used, and that a ‘D’ under the old system reflected a similar range from 65 to 70.
Some of the at-risk kids do not have the support network at home that many of the more successful kids have, and this is more the reason why the school district needs to work more closely with them and give them incentives for success, Smith said.
“Two-thirds of our students have free or reduced lunch,” McGeehan said.
This is a measure of those near or at the poverty line, students who are served by the district and often face more challenges in learning.
This also reflects some of the issues families face with the tough economy.
“This isn’t just immigrants, but blue collar workers who do not have jobs,” Smith said. “Bayonne has more union workers per capita than any other city in the state.”
In conjunction with other recommendation made by the committee, Bayonne students will be able to be more competitive with students from other school districts.
“What to do you tell kids that are seniors who are now going through the college process? They cannot afford to have a 65. Colleges are looking at their grades, their SATs and ACTs. It is not alright to do this to our school system,” LaPelusa said.
“We will not just lower our standards because the board is telling us to.” – A teacher
One teacher in the school district criticized the change.
“It is just yet another device to dumb down education,” the teacher said. “So personally I’m just going to adapt my grading system. This way what was previously earning 70 now earns a 65. And what previously earned a 65 now earns a 60. This is pretty easy to do with a subjective assignment like a paper, poster, or project. It will be more difficult to accomplish with objective formats like tests. I used to curve tests. I will not any longer. I will make the tests slightly more difficult than normal. This way if they are going to fail, I’ll make sure it is with a 60 now due to difficulty level.”
Other teachers in the district will resist as well.
“We will not just lower our standards because the board is telling us to,” the teacher said. “I have national tests to prepare my students for. Those benchmarks are being raised, yet the board wants to lower the passing scores for a class.”
The teacher said that while other school districts may have lowered their passing grades, it is not an excuse for Bayonne to do so.
“Just because others are doing so, it does not mean we should too,” the teacher said. “We used to take pride in having higher standards. Take pride in not aiming for mere mediocrity. Take pride in saying you passed through the more stringent educational system of Bayonne. Unfortunately, this will no longer be the case. We will just be like all the others.”
Moran said standards remain high and consistent with New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards (NJCCCS) and the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and that this is designed to help students who aren’t achieving the way they should be and keep them from failing, and that the district has a plan of action that includes a number of other things that will go into effect when a student’s grade reach an area of risk.