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Grading Controversy Roils Berkeley High School

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Wednesday March 25, 2009 - 06:50:00 PM

A letter to the editor in last month’s Jacket, Berkeley High’s bi-monthly student newspaper, questioning grading practices at the high school, has created much controversy and prompted Berkeley Unified School District officials to look into adopting a consensus for grading procedures. 

The letter, written by Berkeley High School science teachers Amy Hansen, Matt McHugh and Evy Kavaler, alleges that administrators, counselors and lead teachers at some of Berkeley High’s small schools pressure teachers in the large schools to change students’ poor grades so as not to interfere with college admissions. 

Students from Berkeley High’s four small schools—Communication Arts and Sciences (CAS), Community Partnerships Academy (CPA), Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA) and the School of Social Justice and Ecology (SSJE)—currently take science classes from teachers in the two large schools, Academic Choice (AC) and International Baccalaureate (IB). 

Hansen, McHugh and Kavaler allege in their letter that in some of the small schools, “students can even have their transcripts changed to reflect a passing grade in a course for which they were never enrolled. 

“For example, students in the small school Arts and Humanities Academy (AHA) enrolled in Honors Human Anatomy who find themselves in academic trouble can receive a ‘C’ in Integrated Science instead of their true failing grade,” the letter’s authors charge. “Aside from being improper, perhaps even illegal, this practice of changing transcripts is dishonest and unethical. Our mission is to educate, and a grade is supposed to represent mastery of a particular body of knowledge.” 

District officials, state educators and Berkeley High teachers have had mixed reactions to the allegations. 

Berkeley Unified Superintendent Bill Huyett told the Daily Planet that the district would facilitate a dialogue between the science department and the small schools regarding instructional practices and procedures at Berkeley High. 

“We will work with the science teachers on looking at the concerns about students and the curriculum that they take and the procedure for courses on their transcripts,” he said. “We are going to help to form a consensus on the practice done at the school.” 

As for the charge that some teachers were changing students’ transcripts to reflect a passing grade for a course they had never signed up for, Huyett said, “that practice needs to be reviewed before it can be accepted.” 

“There was a lot of overreaction on some people’s part,” he said. “When you have several small schools, there is bound to be philosophical differences. You need to work that out—the district and the school will work together to establish a coherent program that can be clearly explained.” 

Berkeley High was supposed to host the first discussion Tuesday, with help from the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools, but the event was canceled because of a scheduling problem, participants said. 

Calls to Acting Principal Maggie Heredia-Peltz for comment were not returned. 

Larry Birch, director of professional services for the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing, said that, in a situation like this, the local school district is responsible for conducting a review of its grade-granting procedures. 

“What did the failing grade mean and did the student learn enough to have a passing grade for a course they did not enroll for? How do you evaluate what a student has learned?” he asked. “If there was a policy that allowed that in the district, then that’s OK. But if someone says ‘let’s just do this,’ then it’s a problem.” 

Berkeley Board of Education Member John Selawsky said that communication between teachers is the best way to address differences in grading. 

“It’s not something that’s out of whack in most educational practices,” he said. “I don’t believe it’s happening on a large scale at the high school—all the teacher has to say is ‘No.’ If it’s happening on an individual scale, I would prefer the school to handle the issue themselves. They need to find out what’s going on. If allegations continue to arise, then at that point it becomes our [the School Board’s] issue.” 

Phil Halpern, lead teacher at CAS, denied the allegations about grade changes. 

“CAS does not engage in that practice. I can’t comment on any other teachers’ practices,” he said. “We all have an obligation to constantly reconsider our practices—it’s not a small school big–school issue. The suggestion that ethical corruption occurs in small schools is both wrong and offensive.” 

Halpern said he was surprised that the three teachers had not sent him the letter or discussed their concerns with him or the Berkeley High School Governance Council before sending it to the Jacket. 

AHA counselor Teri Goodman rebuked the grade-pressuring allegations with her own letter, explaining that although teachers had heard about such instances, her impression was that “it was infrequent and quickly and firmly dealt with when discovered. 

“This concern about grade pressuring has existed since long before the small schools were created, and to suggest that this is developing out of the small schools is indeed insidious,” Goodman said in her letter. “As the AHA counselor, when one of my students is doing poorly in a class, any communication I have with the teacher is around helping the student figure out how to be more successful as a student and is never about giving them a grade they have not earned.” 

Hansen, who has taught at Berkeley High for two years, told the Planet that she had become aware of this practice last spring when she heard a conversation about giving passing grades to a student who was struggling. 

“The teacher said that ‘a student was not doing well in chemistry, so we are going to give him a ‘C’ in physical science,” she said. “I was surprised kids were going to get passing grades for courses they had not taken at all. That’s when it came to my attention that the small schools were doing it. I talked to other people and they knew it was going on.” 

Hansen said that she e-mailed her concerns to Berkeley High faculty and administration and Huyett around Jan. 18, but that by the time she received a response from the high school principal, Jim Slemp, and the superintendent, the letter was already on its way to the Jacket. 

The Jacket published the letter in its Feb. 27 edition along with a rebuttal from Halpern and an accompanying report by its staff writers on the issue. 

“There has been a disturbing shift in the culture of Berkeley High School over the past several years in which college admission has become the primary goal of students; academic preparedness has become secondary at best,” the letter says. “This shift has not been inadvertent or circumstantial, but a deliberate and defended philosophy of our current administration that has reached a crisis point and is undermining our fundamental mission to educate our students.” 

The letter also alleged that teachers dropped students from difficult classes early in the semester if they sensed that the student would not perform well. 

It charged that administrators failed to “assign consequences” to students who were caught cheating on exams and forced teachers to withdraw “classroom consequences for cheating in order to protect students’ transcripts.” 

Hansen attributed the alleged practices to “great pressure all over the school to make sure that kids graduate and get into college.” 

“When the administration sets that target and the teachers see their students fail to achieve those expectations, then the pressure sets in,” she said. “College rules over proficiency, mastery and learning. One would expect academic mastery from students and college would follow, but if you skip a step, it leads to misuse of our charge, and our charge is to educate. College should be a natural outgrowth of that.” 

Halpern defended the small schools by saying that their goal was to help all students to succeed, irrespective of their social, economic or racial backgrounds. 

“The accusation that small schools are inflating grades because we don’t care about education, but only college admission, is outrageous,” he said. “We are being accused of throwing pixie dust into the eyes of admissions officers who are paid to assess a wide variety of students. They can recognize well-educated kids, everybody knows that.” 

Kavaler, who has taught at Berkeley High for 17 years, said that when a teacher had approached her for a grade change in the past, she had refused. 

“I don’t think Berkeley High is the only school in the country where this is happening,” she said. “I have noticed it for many years—I even spoke about it with people at the school. But I like to focus my time on teaching and not trying to decide whether teachers are doing right or wrong. The school should do that.” 

Kavaler said she was happy that the superintendent had agreed to put together a series of discussions to address the issue. 

“I think it’s a great start for Berkeley High,” she said. “We need to sit down and talk about standards and what can be done.” 

Halpern said that the letter had proved to be detrimental to the morale of many teachers. 

“It was very divisive and had a negative effect on student learning,” he said. “Most teachers are pretty burned out from it.” 

McHugh said in an e-mail that he stood by the concerns raised in the letter, but “regretted the fact that so many hardworking teachers had felt personally offended by it.” 

“The concerns we raised focus on policies of our administration; they were intended to be directed toward our administration and must be addressed by our administration,” he said. 

Rick Ayers, a former Berkeley High teacher who was involved in starting the smalls schools, called every assertion in the letter an outrage. 

“People are very nice about it,” he said. “The school district has been getting teachers together for 10 years to talk. I don’t think people need to talk nice at this point. [The letter] has shattered every friendly discourse possible.” 

About 15 teachers showed up for a lunchtime conversation coordinated by Halpern following the publication of the letter. 

“The majority of teachers wanted to talk about teaching and learning,” he said. “A minority of teachers wanted to talk about difficult topics, such as ethics and grading practices. However, I would like to start with less controversial and more classroom-focused topics as a means to rebuild trust in teachers—to support those difficult conversations. The district’s efforts to hold these discussions comes at a point when the science teachers have already divided the staff. We need to engage in some community rebuilding.