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‘Grove Committee Tackles Grading Problem

POTTSTOWN PA – A proposal to change how Pottsgrove High School graduates are honored during commencement offers what administrators say is the potential to recognize a greater number of students who earned high grades during their academic careers. To do that, though, the school might also change its decades-long tradition of naming a valedictorian and salutatorian.

Nothing’s set in stone so far; the idea is only in the talking stage. It garnered plenty of discussion last Tuesday (Jan. 12, 2016), some of it highly critical, when the district Board of School Directors met in West Pottsgrove. It also is on the agenda for tonight’s (Jan. 19) meeting of the board Curriculum, Technology, and Student Affairs Committee, from 7:30-9 p.m. at the district office, 1301 Kauffman Rd.

The meeting is free to attend and open to the public. A copy of the agenda is available from the district website, here.

Technically, the topic is labeled as “Grading Practices Implementation.” It refers to how Pottsgrove hopes to deal with disparities caused by switching the grading scale last year from a long-standing 7-point system to a newer, more college-friendly 10-point one. That change was advocated by parents and others who claimed the 7-point scale put their students at a disadvantage in competing for post-secondary admissions.

What no one comprehended at the time, Superintendent Shellie Feola explained to directors last week, was the difficulty of translating 7-point numbers to 10-point in a way that ranks graduating class members with what she described as “accuracy, transparency and fidelity.”

Computer programmers have told the district an algorithmic formula can approximate the proper rank, but its accuracy cannot be guaranteed. In fact, according to district Director of Technology and Communication Michael Wagman, the programmer on whom Pottsgrove would rely to do the work has “strongly” suggested it be avoided.

As a result, the district currently lacks what Feola called a satisfactory way to compute class rankings for all students based on their final grades. “It’s not happening right now,” she said, and added that failure represented a violation of existing board policy.

The proposal to broaden how student academic achievement is recognized at commencement might rely on honoring those who fell within a range of high grades, rather than selecting a valedictorian, salutatorian, and honor graduates. It is a “way to think differently about class ranking and recognition,” Feola admitted, but it has the benefit of “less subjectivity” and commends more students for doing their best.

Board members exhibited a range of emotions when they heard the news.

“I’m far from comfortable with what’s being recommended,” board President Rick Rabinowitz said. “This could be a public relations disaster,” he predicted.

Directors were left unaware of the problem until too late, director Al Leach added. Had they been privy to the extent of incompatibilities between the grade scales the board might not have approved the change, he said.

On the other hand, director Patti Grimm said she had “faith we’re going to work this out.” Director Bill Parker, who said he favored the 10-point scale, claimed the administration and staff merely “did as they were directed” in making the switch and probably could not have anticipated the problems involved.

According to the committee agenda, tonight’s meeting intends to tackle a “grade scale discussion follow up, building level meetings, teacher recommendations, (and) implementation checks.” Its goal, Feola said, is “to do what’s best for our students.”

Related (to the Pottsgrove Board of School Directors’ Jan. 12 meeting):

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