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.