Rohnert Park, Cotati schools rethink grading scale

Champions and detractors have emerged for a new grading system in Rohnert Park and Cotati schools.|

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.

“It’s a lie, that’s all it is,” he said.

Tech Middle school math and science teacher James Gregoretti, who is Maha Gregoretti’s husband, said he has math students who normally would be failing earning C’s. He has a science student with a 23 percent grade getting a D-, he said.

“This isn’t giving a student hope,” he told the board in September, “it is lowering standards in order to raise grades.”

Haley shows little patience for such complaints, or for stories about students whose grades don’t reflect their dismal performance.

“I think those teachers are picking out extreme examples,” he said. “There are a minority of teachers who seem to find a way to flunk students who have demonstrated that they have achieved at least a certain level of passing - I don’t subscribe to that.”

And Green, the Rancho Cotate High math teacher, says the new system allows students to concentrate more on what they are learning than what their marks are at any one point in time.

“I found a lot under the old system that they were worried about the grades and less worried about the material,” Green said. “Within the new system, it gives more of an opportunity for them to work their way toward an understanding of the material.”

But Peter Dudik, a Lawrence Jones Middle School math and science teacher, says students are wise to the difference and, as well, parents used to the traditional system are baffled.

“Most of the kids that I talk to, who know of the new inflated grading scale, think that it would make a lot of students not try as hard because they know they don’t have to,” he said.

“And parents are confused as to why scores around 50 percent are getting C’s and above.”

Ganzler said one refinement to the system that teachers may propose is that instead of receiving a 50 percent for work that isn’t done or turned in, students would receive an incomplete and be required to work with their teacher to achieve a passing grade.

“Instead of just being an ostrich and sticking your head in the sand and getting 50 percent, you have to go check in with your teacher and your teacher will help you catch up,” she said. “It’ll be a better skill for our students, and it’ll feel better as a teacher.”

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay blogs about education at You can reach him at 521-5212 or On Twitter @jeremyhay.

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