LEE COUNTY, Fla., — Your child gives it their all, both time and effort, yet struggles to complete a homework assignment.
Another child scribbles their name on a piece of paper and turns it in.
Technically, both students could get the same grade according to an investigation by Scripps station WFTX in Fort Myers, Florida that’s uncovering the tactics teachers and administrators are using to boost low grades.
WFTX's Tony Sadiku obtained emails from a Harns Marsh Middle School assistant principal to teachers asking for everyone’s commitment to follow the school’s grading policy, '50% minimum, 0 = 50' in a practice known as minimum grading.
Teachers say students who would otherwise get a zero are given between a 50 to 59 percent regardless of whether they prove they’ve learned anything. If a student doesn’t turn in a single assignment all quarter, they’ve earned a 50% at some schools.
The principal at Harns Marsh told teachers in 2016 via email, “A 60 for our students that are trying but are several grade levels behind academically is fair.”
Some parents said they disagree. “I don’t believe it’s fair, by no means,” said one parent of a 7th grader at the school.
Several parents said they've never heard of minimum grading. Even some Lee County School Board members said they were unaware of the school’s grading practice. “I know of no such policy, formal or informal, in Lee County schools,” said Board Member Cathleen Morgan.
“I am not aware of such a policy,” said Board Member Dr. Jane Kuckel.
“I think every parent needs to be aware of the grading policy,” said Mark Castellano, a former Lee County public school teacher.
The Lee County School District said minimum grading is not a District policy, but a practice implemented by some schools and teachers to encourage struggling students.
“Often times a zero can completely deteriorate a grade and they will lose interest because they think there’s no way for them to get a passing grade,” said Dr. Wanda Creel, the District’s Chief Academic Officer. “When students will grasp those concepts is really is on a personalized individualized basis. Minimum grading allows students to stay engaged while still learning and for teachers to continue to work with them through the process.”
Creel said the goal is for students to pass on their own.
But does a better grade on a report card mean students are actually learning?
While students may have a better shot at passing their classes because of minimum grading, numbers from the Florida Department of Education show many still aren’t testing well.
At Harns Marsh Middle school, 38 percent passed the English Language Arts Florida Standards Assessment test in 2017. In the entire District, 53 percent of middle schoolers passed.
Harns Marsh kids also had lower numbers in the FSA Mathematics Test. Only 35 percent of kids passed last year compared to 51 percent of middle schoolers in the District who passed.
Middle school students who don’t pass are still promoted to the next grade level, but may be more likely to struggle down the road.
Statistically, 8th graders are more likely to be retained than 6th and 7th graders according to the Florida Department of Education.
“Teachers will begin to think that I need to retain because this child doesn’t seem to be able to tackle the issues in high school,” Creel said. “A retained 8th grader can be one of the highest indicators of a dropout. We are finding strategies to help our overaged 8th graders to get the credits they need so they can move on to high school.”
“You have kids that are absolutely motivated and they love learning. Those kids you rarely have to do anything. Then you have kids that struggle. They struggle with their home life. They struggle with their socioeconomic situations,” Castellano said.
But is adjusting a student’s grade closer to passing the solution?
“What are we teaching kids in terms of their personal responsibility for their education?” Castellano said.
Castellans says in his nearly 30+ years of teaching, not once has he used the practice.
“What they’re saying is for those kids the grade is irrelevant, it’s not going to motivate them,” said Robert Kenny, a professor of education at Florida Gulf Coast University.
School Board Member Jane Kuckel supports minimum grading policies at some schools.
“All students learn and thrive in different ways," she said. "The outcomes are non-negotiable. The process for getting there needs to be tailored to the achievement levels and learning styles of the students.”
One parent argues her child earning the grade matters more.
“It’s a big deal cause he needs to learn and he needs to make it in this world," the parent said. "The world is not going to give him a free pass forever and they don’t need to learn that in middle school.”
The District said they plan to set up committees next fall to evaluate how minimum grading is being done to come up with a more uniform approach across the District.