Rohnert Park, Cotati schools rethink grading scale
A new grading scale that redefines what constitutes an “A” or an “F” is causing strife and confusion in the Cotati-Rohnert Park school district. Some teachers and officials say it lowers the bar for student success, while others say it encourages students to succeed.
The new system is called the equal interval scale. Essentially, it makes it harder to get a failing grade. It departs from the traditional A to F scale in which students receive F’s for scores below 59 percent. Instead, the scale awards F’s only for scores below 20 percent.
“My mentor teacher, she’s not enjoying it. She’s got issues with it,” said Adam Green, a Rancho Cotate High School math teacher who likes the new system. “I respect her and I respectfully disagree.”
Under the new policy, grades rise in 20-point increments. For example, scores of 20 to 40 percentage points earn D- through D+ grades - and so on, up the ladder. Students get an A- for scoring between 80 and 85, which traditionally is low B territory.
Some teachers have tried to hang on to the traditional grading system but have been tripped up by a blanket new policy that students, even if they do not hand in homework or take a test, get 50 percent. Under the new rule, it’s possible for a student who skips a test to receive a better grade than a student who takes the test and does poorly.
“This is just incomprehensible. I don’t have words,” said Lanny Lowery, who has taught English at Rancho Cotate High since 1980.
To her knowledge, said Jessica Progulske, curriculum coordinator for student engagement with the Sonoma County Office of Education, Rohnert Park is the only district in the county to have implemented such a system. Some departments at Elsie Allen High School have a somewhat similar system, said Chris White, director of the Santa Rosa City Schools district office of curriculum and instruction.
Cotati-Rohnert Park school administrators say the change reflects a national movement to encourage students to strive rather than demoralizing them with low grades that make success seem out of reach.
“They’ve still flunked, but they don’t have as much to do mathematically to climb out of the F range,” Superintendent Robert Haley said. “It doesn’t eliminate the F; it doesn’t lower the bar.”
But opponents of the new policy say it does exactly that.
“Anytime you lower the bar, it hurts. You just let people do a more mediocre job,” said school board member Leffler Brown, who voted for the change in June, when it was adopted over vociferous teacher objections.
“When you don’t set expectations higher, you get lesser results,” Brown said.
The issue also has become a labor dispute. The Rohnert Park teachers union, saying the changes weren’t negotiated, as their contract requires, and teachers weren’t properly notified that they would be implemented, pressed the district to negotiate the changes.
The district last week agreed to sit down at the bargaining table, said Maha Gregoretti, a sixth-grade math teacher and president of the Rohnert Park Cotati Educators Association.
Meanwhile, some teachers at Rancho Cotate High, both supporters and opponents of the new policy, have been meeting to see if the new system can be refined to address some of the concerns.
“We don’t all have the exact same opinion about the scale, but we do all agree that we want to find a way to support kids to make sure that they’re always able to get support to pass their classes,” said Valerie Ganzler, an English teacher at the high school who favors the new system.
The new grading structure reflects an honest desire to help the district’s students, said Ganzler, who acknowledges that initially she was not sure about it either.
“Absolutely, I had concerns,” she said. She overcame those doubts in informational meetings organized by the district with staff, administrators and other teachers, she said.
She has noticed a difference already, she said.
“I would see students in my classroom who for whatever reason, they would see themselves get further and further behind and at some point you would see some give up and check out,” Ganzler said. “Having grades that are equal intervals, it is always possible for those kids to catch up.”
But other teachers say they have seen the downside of the new system.
Lowery, who has tried to retain the traditional grading system, said he has a student who early in the semester had a grade in the 80s range and another in the 25 percent range, but then stopped coming to class. Because his missed assignments all received a 50 percent, the student has a 49 percent average, instead of the 3 percent average he would have under the previous grading system, Lowery said.