Friday, March 27, 2015

When an F isn't really an F

Bensalem High School's report-card grades may not be what they ought to be.

When an F isn't really an F

I wish it were comforting to know that Philadelphia public schools aren’t the only schools where some students are given credit for work they never did.

But there’s nothing comforting about the info shared in a depressing e-mail I received after my column about South Philly High School appeared this week. I wrote that it was absurd to pass children who didn’t deserve to pass, in a dunder-headed attempt to improve the kids’ self-esteem.

The e-mail was from a person familiar with the grading system at Bensalem High School, where, for the first time, report-card grades now show letter scores instead of numeric scores.

When teachers enter their grades into the school’s computerized grading system, they use numeric scores, which the system converts to a letter grade. So a numeric score between, say, 90 and 100 will kick out an A or A+ on a student’s report card. Lower numbers will kick out lower letter grades.

So far so good.

But the strange thing, says the e-mailer, with whom I eventually conversed by phone, is that the computer’s default system automatically converts to 50 every numeric grade that’s actually lower than 50.

So a 30 becomes a 50. A 22 becomes a 50. An 18 becomes a 50. Since all grades of 50 and lower convert to an F on the report card, this wouldn’t seem to matter, right? An F is an F is an F, right?

Well, yes and no. Why? Because the system uses the individual number scores, entered for each of the school year’s six marking periods, to tally a student’s final, average letter grade for the year.

For example, let’s say a student we’ll call Ted earns the following numeric grades for his report card: 20, 70, 19, 22, 71 and 69. Averaged out for the year, Ted's final numeric grade is a 45 – which converts to an F.

But if those lowest grades get bumped up to 50s, then Ted's average becomes a 60 – which converts to a D.

Hence, Ted's F work for the year bumps up to a D. Enough of these fattened grades could help a kid get promoted to the next grade, or graduate from high school, when his true numerical grades would never allow him to move along.

The e-mailer I spoke to says that teachers are allowed to “over-ride” the default-to-50 grade that pops up when they try to enter a number lower than 50. But some teachers are reluctant to do so, because they feel the system itself implicitly telegraphs the message to teachers that the change would not be appreciated.

And teachers, as we know, are skittish people.

“Why does it default to 50 in the first place?” asks the e-mailer. “It’s a dishonest system.”

Just another absurd story about putting lipstick on a pig and calling it pretty.

Ronnie Polaneczky Daily News Columnist
About this blog

When my phone rings here at the Daily News, nine times out of ten the caller begins the conversation with, “Yeah, so what happened was…”.

Because this is Philly, the caller doesn’t say, “My name is Bob” – or Mary – “and I wonder if I could have a moment of your time?” Philadelphians are too direct for that. They just say, “Yeah, so what happened was…”, and then tumble into a tale they think oughta be shared with a wider audience. I love getting these calls (even the ones where it becomes clear, after 30 seconds, where the caller sowed the seeds of his own misery), because they give me chance to connect with fellow citizens in a way that no other job allows. Well, okay, no other job for which I’m remotely qualified.

That’s why my blog is titled “So What Happened Was…”. To me, it’s the quintessentially Philly way of saying, “Once upon a time.” When I hear it, I know a good story is coming. And I can’t wait to see how it turns out.

Ronnie Polaneczky has been an award-winning columnist for The Philadelphia Daily News since 1999, offering a front-steps perspective on every aspect of city life, from the sublime to the stupid. In her past life, she was the editor-in-chief of Atlantic City Magazine, associate editor at Philadelphia Magazine and a fulltime freelancer published in Ladies Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Reader's Digest, Men's Health, MarieClaire and others. She lives with her husband, daughter and various pets in the city's Fairmount section, where she dreams of one day singing The National Anthem at an Eagles game. In addition to her column and blog, you can enjoy Ronnie's musings in podcast form here.

Read more from Ronnie Polaneczky at Earth to Philly, the Daily News blog on anything and everything "Green Reach Ronnie at

Ronnie Polaneczky Daily News Columnist
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