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Updated Aug 1, 2012, 9:18 pm Originally posted Aug 1, 2012, 12:01 pm
Tucson Unified School District officials are tossing out a "naive" Pueblo High plan to give students a minimum 50 points on every assignment, even in cases of cheating.
Calling a plan to institute "no-zero" grading at Pueblo Magnet High School "well-intentioned" but "naive," TUSD Superintendent John Pedicone said Wednesday that the principal of the South Side school was told, "You can't do that."
The halt to the new grade scale was welcomed by a TUSD board member and at least one Pueblo teacher.
Pueblo's Vivi Watt emailed teachers a new grading scale on Friday, telling them, "We will not be using zeros for any purpose."
As a TucsonSentinel.com investigation first reported, Watt told teachers to award 50 points, rather than a zero, to assignments that were the result of cheating or plagiarism, and "(a)ny assignments where students have a D or F can and should be ‘do overs.’"
Pedicone said Watt "ended up crossing the line" with the grading scale.
The plan was created "with the best of intentions," Pedicone said. "We support what she's trying to do."
Pedicone said Pueblo "has a high failure rate, especially among freshman," and that Watt wants to "encourage teachers to intervene."
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Students who begin school poorly because they're not prepared for high school-level work "can't be relegated to failure," he said.
Despite the instruction to teachers to give half-credit for cheating, "there was never an intention to reward students who cheat," Pedicone said.
Pedicone and Assistant Superintendent for high schools Abel Morado are working with Watt to devise a plan that will help under-achieving students to catch up, he said.
The plan raised a furor among Pueblo teachers; most contacted about the "no-zero" policy would not comment, citing a fear of retaliation by administrators, but one expressed concern about the change.
"It's a policy that's not thought out very well," said the teacher on Tuesday, who would only speak conditioned on anonymity.
"It makes it appear to the public that we at Pueblo have no standards as teachers, and we actually do," the instructor said, saying the policy would inflate grades and create "inequity from one school to another."
Speaking again Wednesday, the teacher said, "It's great that policy is being thrown out."
"Obviously, as teachers, we want to help failing students; this just wasn't the right policy," the instructor said.
Tucson Unified School District Governing Board member Mark Stegeman also raised questions.
"I am concerned that this policy could undercut the district's new emphasis on student achievement and higher academic standards. It seems to be a step backwards," Stegeman said in a Tuesday email to constituents.
Stegeman welcomed the cancellation of the policy on Wednesday.
While "grading is something for teachers to determine," TUSD should consider "adopting a consistent grading scale across the district," he said.
A head of the local teachers' union said Tuesday that many Pueblo teachers were "dissatisfied" with the grading scale.
"What message are we sending to our kids?" asked Frances Banales, president of the Tucson Education Association, who also said she thought the policy would inevitably result in grade inflation.
Principal refuses questions, seeks whistleblower
Watt refused to answer questions regarding the grading scale at the 1,600-student magnet high school, 3500 S. 12th Ave.
Despite her email and a PowerPoint on the change prepared by a Pueblo assistant principal, Watt denied there is a new grading scale, and sought to ID who blew the whistle on the change.
"I think you and/or the person who gave you this information are jumping the gun here," she said Sunday, in response to a Saturday email.
"We have not implemented a new grading scale at Pueblo just yet. We will be following the new grading policy put forward by TUSD, however. This will be followed by a year long (sic) discussion about how to implement some changes at Pueblo," she wrote.
"Can you tell me who gave you this information?" Watt wrote.
Watt's email, sent to the school's teachers, is a public record.
Teachers at the school told TucsonSentinel.com they are not allowed to speak to the media without the principal's permission, and said they feared reprisals even if they were to comment anonymously.
According to the source at Pueblo, Watt has questioned teachers in an effort to learn who tipped the Sentinel to the grade-scale change.
The teachers' union's Banales said the move to change the school's grading policies originated at the district level, and is "very much supported by the Pueblo leadership."
She said she wasn't surprised that an administrator would try to learn who had spoken to the press.
Principals have power to transfer or fire teachers who speak out. Staff must "toe the party line," she said.
"They don't have to have a reason, they don't have to have a process," she said.
The Governing Board and TUSD leadership "think that this is a business model," Banales said. "They have a mindset that the principal has all the say."
Governing Board member Michael Hicks said Tuesday that teachers should be able to relay their concerns to the media.
"Absolutely they should be able to talk," he said. "They can talk to reporters, they can give me a call and be anonymous. That's important."
Stegeman said Wednesday that retaliation "happens often enough that it makes people afraid to speak out ... it has a corrosive effect."
"It's the kind of thing that makes good people leave," he said.
Stegeman said he has heard rumors that Pueblo's principal is questioning who informed TucsonSentinel.com about the policy, "but I don't know that it happened."
"It doesn't seem like an appropriate question to ask," he said. "It seems like an odd question to ask of a very public act," considering Watt's email was sent to hundreds of people.
"People should feel free to step forward," he said.
The anonymous Pueblo teacher said Wednesday, "It's great the public got to hear about (the grading scale). Ultimately, we're a public school."
Pedicone: 'Can't do that'
The "no-zero" grading policy doesn't square with TUSD regulations, Pedicone said.
Morado told Watt, "You can't do that," the superintendent said.
"We can't simply let them languish," Pedicone said of failing students at Pueblo, but called the plan the wrong way to motivate students.
"If they have a failing grade, it means they have more work to do," he said.
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Zeros 'work against everyone by diminishing hope'
A presentation on the grading scale provided to teachers by Assistant Principal Kathi Shaw said the usual practice of grading scores of 0-59 as an F has an "undue, deflationary effect."
Zeroes "work against everyone by diminishing hope," the PowerPoint presentation said.
The anonymous Pueblo teacher cited a sliding state rating of the school as a possible prompt for the policy move.
"Math scores did slip," the teacher said, and Pueblo's rating by the state fell from a C to a D.
"But you can't just inflate the grades and expect the test scores to rise," the teacher said.
Hicks said he took issue with the grading scale.
"We should be striving to make kids excel, not rewarding them for not doing anything," he said.
Board President Miguel Cuevas said Tuesday afternoon that he would look into the policy and comment later, but walked away from me when I tried to question him after a TUSD Board meeting on Tuesday night.
Calls to the other Governing Board members—Adelita Grijalva and Alexandre Sugiyama—were not returned. Grijalva also walked away when I tried to question her on the policy.
District grading policy
TUSD instituted a new district-wide grading policy during the spring that permits student participation to be considered when grading.
While based on a model policy from the Arizona School Boards Association, TUSD added a point that reads "(a)dditional standards in the areas of participation may be established and taken into consideration when determining grades."
The Governing Board voted 4-1 to adopt the policy, with Stegeman dissenting.
Stegeman expressed concerns at the time that the policy did not limit the credit students could receive for participation.
He echoed those concerns Tuesday.
"I can't say (the Pueblo grading scale) contradicts the policy; there's a loophole where you can drive through the policy," he said in an interview.
"It's outside the spirit" of the district policy, he said.
"I think it's demoralizing to teachers," Stegeman said.
"Students are being told, 'It's no big deal if you cheat,'" he said. "You just get half credit and a chance to do it over."
"In a job, you do not get half credit for dishonesty; you probably get fired," he said in his email.
"At UA, where I teach, the penalty for plagiarism is generally more severe than getting 50 percent credit for the assignment; and you do not get automatic chances to "do over" failing work. TUSD does not help its students by acclimating them to standards which are much looser than they will face in later life," he said.
The Pueblo instructor concurred.
'They need encouragement and motivation, not accounting tricks.'
"If you bail kids out over and over again ... they don't develop a work ethic," the teacher said Tuesday.
In an interview before the policy was rescinded, Stegeman pointed to what he called "equity issues" between schools. While Stegeman said other TUSD schools are not adopting the "no-zero" policy, Banales said another district high school may be moving toward the "50-point" grade scale.
"To have substantially different grading policies at different high schools presents issues of consistency," Stegeman said.
Students who transfer between schools—a frequent occurrence in TUSD–may be graded very differently in their new school, he said. The TUSD board member also said he's concerned about students at different schools being given differing grades for equivalent work.
"Setting low expectations for our students also disrespects them by saying, implicitly, that we think you are capable of no better," Stegeman wrote to constituents.
"Indeed, they are capable of much better, if adults provide models of good behavior and show confidence that students, with our help, can perform to high standards," he wrote.
"I really care about my students," the Pueblo teacher said. "I have a firm belief that they can achieve great things. They need encouragement and motivation, not accounting tricks."
"I'm worried this is going to make Pueblo look bad as a school, and while we have our problems we certainly don't deserve the reputation around town that we have," the teacher said on Tuesday. "When I say I work at Pueblo people usually say, 'Ugh, that sounds rough' or 'Oh, bless your heart.'