Free 50

In some New York districts, students get 50 points out of 100 on their report cards just for being enrolled. It’s supposed to be a motivator, giving poor students a chance to pass with a little effort. But some students use it to minimize their effort. From New York Teacher:

Thirty miles west of Syracuse, Auburn teachers are challenging a newly imposed district policy that gives students a minimum grade of 50 regardless of their attendance, test scores, class participation or lack thereof. Auburn, with some 5,200 students, joins the ranks of Syracuse and Niagara Falls — other districts that this year have implemented policies that guarantee students minimum grades.

. . . “We know the rationale behind the district advancing this policy, but it literally destroys the trust between the student and teacher of honest assessment,” said Sally Jo Widmer, president of the 670- member Auburn Teachers Association. Some educators worry the 50-point minimum granted to every student in grades 7-12 gives kids an excuse not to work.

And teachers in several districts with minimum grading policies say they’ve witnessed students “coasting” on the gift 50.

“At the end of the first marking period, we had dozens of students who received a grade of 50 who had never turned in any homework, never taken a test or been present for a class, and could not have been accurately assessed by the teacher,” Widmer said. And “we have students who have successfully completed the first three marking periods and they are, with pen and pencil, calculating how little work they can do and still receive a passing grade.”

Anti-union readers should note that the teachers’ union is protesting the policy, saying it violates the “contract provision giving teachers responsibility for setting grading standards.”

Via Education Gadfly.

About Joanne


  1. One of my college professors guaranteed everyone a 55 (passing was 60). If you failed the course, you would fail with a 55. You didn’t *start* with a 55; if you earned, say, 13%, you didn’t get 68, you got 55. (This was, unsurprisingly, the English class I took with the highest class average. This was done for fairly reasonable “don’t destroy the overall average” calculations.)

    I liked the course. He had a policy that, once you’d missed too much work to possibly pass, he would get in touch with you, to tell you to just not bother. No matter how good your final paper was, you would fail. No one believed him, and I remember clearly writing my final paper in the computer lab, next to someone else in the class who was writing his paper on some book we were explicitly told we weren’t allowed to write about. I sort of mentioned it to the guy — no idea why — and he said he figured the prof wouldn’t *really* mind, actually, he was told he could never pass, but he figured if he wrote a good enough final paper . . .

  2. Now that scores near 50% are considered passworthy on things like standardized tests, why don’t they just come right out and say that everyone will be guaranteed a pass? Why this incrementalism?

    Also, I’m curious to know how kids who are brought up with this kind of artificial promotion find themselves capable of calculating exactly how many points they need to pass.

  3. Clearly they’re learning more math than their test scores show. This could make much more relevant word problems.

    Mr. Smith says your English mark will determined as follows: 30% multimedia project (out of 60), 5% quizzes, 20% research paper and 45% final exam. If Sarah got 12 on her multimedia project, an 8/10 average on her quizzes and a 14/20 on her paper, what is the minimum percentage mark she needs on her final exam to pass the course?

  4. I briefly went to a high school where the minimum score on anything was 55%… The rationale was that it gave slackers a reason to try to turn themselves around…

    Example: Bob is lazy and doesn’t care about doing schoolwork… Halfway through the semester, wise teacher/guidance counselor/parent shows him the light, and he begins doing schoolwork… In fact, he does ‘B’ work the rest of the semester… However, he dug such a big hole the first half of the semester that he still fails… (0% + 80%)/2 = 40% which still equals ‘F’… However, by making the minimum grade 55%, that equation turns into (55% + 80%)/2 = 67.5%… That gives the student a ‘D’, and a ‘C’ would not be out of the realm of possibilities…

    In reality, it just made things a little easier for those who did most of the work well, but skipped a couple of assignments every now and then…

  5. The first school I ever taught at also had a minimum 50% grade to be posted on a report card. What is this teaching kids, that if you do nothing you still get half credit? If you do not show up for work, will you get 50% of your paycheck? I was a young naive teacher at the time, and even then I thought it was a little unusual. Now that I have several more years under my belt, I think it is outright ludicrous. Giving kids a 50 doesn’t entice them to work, it entices them to be more lazy.

  6. Richard Nieporent says:

    And “we have students who have successfully completed the first three marking periods and they are, with pen and pencil, calculating how little work they can do and still receive a passing grade.”

    Clearly, the policy is working!

  7. slimedog says:

    Kind of like getting a combined 400 on the SAT….

  8. Rita C. says:

    Every year I get maybe two or three kids who dig themselves a hole in the beginning of the semester and then decide to turn themselves around. Usually we cut a private deal — no zeros and I’ll pass you. Now, no zeros almost guarantees that they’ll pass numerically anyway so it’s a low-risk deal for me. Most kids who dig a hole, however, have no intentions of improving their academic performance. I think it is goofy to create a school-wide policy that caters to these kids who are not only doing no schoolwork, but probably accounting for 80% of the disciplinary problems. In other words, they cost money in two places — the time and money going into programs designed to improve their performance and the staff that has to be hired to discipline them. These are also the types of kids who tend to drive new teachers out of the profession because their behavior makes teaching HARD. These are not the kids we should be catering to. My roster is always heavy with this type, and I truly love them, but they’re not who I design my policies and teaching around. I managed to help 3 kids turn around this year (and failed to turn around several more), and it wasn’t because I relaxed my grading standards.

  9. Two points to the teacher’s union for opposing this, but minus three points for basing their opposition on legal formalisms instead of on the negative educational impact of the policy. One wonders if they would oppose that sort of grading if it were a teacher deciding to do it instead of an administrator.

    Some students will calculate the minimum amount of work they need to do even under a sane grading scheme, of course. I did at the end of my high school career. I’d been admitted to college with the usual condition that my work for the remainder of the year was of the same level as the work reported on my application. I figured out what grades I needed to get my final semester to maintain the same overall GPA as the previous year, and then deliberately worked to that level. I’m not sure any grading scheme could have prevented that.

  10. I use a policy something like Rita C.’s in my college math classes. I call it the “Deathbed Repentance” clause: if you get anything between an A and a C- on the final, you get a C- in the class. That allows people for whom the lightbulb over their head is fluorescent (i.e. takes a while to turn on), to make a comeback and pass at the end, without giving them the same reward as students who did A or B quality work all semester.

  11. Texas Teacher says:

    This is a district-wide policy in my district. The rationale we have been given is that a single bad six-week marking period (three to a semester) shouldn’t render passing impossible. If a kid can still pass, he might not drop out (thereby hurting the accontability rating). So I have kids who never come to class or who do nothing with 50s.

    Now the problem is that during the final six-weeks of a semester you will have kids figure out that they will still have a C or D if they do no more work — and then don’t.

  12. Old Administrator says:

    There actually is a bit of a rationale behind the idea. Part of it was the idea of not totally discouraging students who mess up for a time. But there was a deeper point as well.
    Some students in my urban high school (Bronx) had personal crises during their HS years. Actually, most had them but some students had major problems and either dropped out for a time or just stopping showing up.
    Administrators felt that if a student had a full year’s worth of zeroes, their average would be a total disaster no matter what they did. After all, a full year of 100’s would only bring them up to an average of 50. And, of course, most of the students would not score that well.
    Yes, it was unfair in the big picture. But for kids who had lost parents to AIDS or drugs or violence or had gotten pregnant or had some other crisis, it allowed them a chance to actually climb back up and possible even attend college.
    Somewhere down the line I remember a line about young people wanting justice and older ones wanting only mercy. Perhaps that should be considered.
    Funny thing. I always considered myself a hard-bitten old mossback. I’m beginning to wonder.

  13. Cousin Dave says:

    Kudos to the union for standing up for common sense here. (New York State United Teachers — are they associated with one of the national unios?) Kyle, I don’t begrudge them the formalism. They probably know what the issue is really about, but they have to have a contract issue in order to get their foot in the door.