Minimum Grade Policy: Fails in Court

Minimum grade policies are now forbidden in Texas; is it good for at-risk students?
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Shocking though it may be, I was a bit of a nerd in high school. I know, I know, you assumed I was head cheerleader or a slacking-off-smokes-in-the-bathroom type, but I must tell you, I pretty much always turned in my homework. Sad, I know. Sadder still, however, were the number of kids at my particular high school who never turned in their homework. Seriously dudes? All you had to do was write some sentences? It was just too much for your burgeoning intellect?

Sen. Jane Nelson apparently did not have a lot of sympathy for slackers. (Although you can’t tell me she didn’t love John Bender in The Breakfast Club.) She introduced a bill last session that prevented school districts from forcing teachers to give minimum grades to low performing students—a relatively common practice in some school districts. While the bill passed easily, 11 school districts, most of which were in Harris County, challenged the law in court, arguing that while it forbade minimum grade requirements on individual assignments, it had no specific restrictions on grades for a report-card period. In other words, even if a students gets a 0 on every assignment in the first grading period, the district may still require the teacher to give the student a 50 on his or her report-card.

Sorry, but no, Judge Triana-Doyle told them yesterday. As Ericka Mellon over at the Houston Chronicle reported yesterday, the court struck down the lawsuit and unless there’s an appeal, minimum grades, for assignments and grading periods, will be a thing of the past.

It’s easy to roll your eyes at the minimum grading concept—certainly districts don’t seem to have sold the concept to parents or teachers. But there are complicated questions in play. First, where does grading authority lie—with the teacher or the district? And perhaps, more importantly for a state that struggles with a chronic drop-out rate, what is a good balance between high standards and second chances for at-risk kids?

Teachers’ groups supported the law and the ruling, not shockingly, because it took grading power away from the district and gave it directly to the teachers. The Texas AFT, one of the state’s teachers’ groups, formally intervened in the lawsuit, presenting evidence and witnesses to aid the state.

The court ruling “basically said teachers’ grading authority will be respected,” said Eric Hartman, director of governmental relations for Texas AFT.  “Teachers have been incensed for years,” he told me, about these “high handed policies.”

But I should be careful to say—these minimum grades that districts were requiring weren’t going to get anyone on honor roll. As Texas Association of School Boards spokeswoman Jackie Lane told me way back in November, most schools were still failing students even with minimum grades. While TASB was neutral on the bill, Lane was adamant that the bill’s advocates weren’t entirely fair about the old policies.

“This rule grew out of an anecdote about a district that adopted 70 as minimum grade,” she told me, but she never found any districts that forced teachers to give passing grades to failing students.

There’s no F-minus after all. People like Lane say that if a kid gets a 50 or a 0, he or she still flunks. But if a student has a 0 from one grading period, it can be all but impossible for them to pass overall, no matter how hard they try and what grades they get the rest of the school year.

Hartman says teachers are always willing to work with students who want to get better. “Teachers bend over backwards,” he said. “…They will bend over backwards if they see a student who is willing to try. What this policy does is tell the student, ‘You don’t have to try.’”

The legislation still lets teachers give their students extra credit or allow students to re-do failed assignments. Of course there’s nothing requiring them to do that either.

For now, the debate it over. Nelson was always adamant that she meant for the bill to apply to all grades, and the courts concur. The lawsuit was a bit of a perplexing decision—the state Education Agency sent a note to districts in October explaining the agency’s interpretation of that law. But it seemed, to almost everyone, that agency wasn’t going to enforce the law unless someone filed a grievance.

As I wrote at The Texas Tribune:

“As both sides rev up in anticipation of litigation, the TEA is still wondering why the districts are bothering to file suit. ‘There’s this assumption that the TEA grade policy SWAT team is in their van headed to your school right now,’ said David Anderson, the agency’s legal counsel.

According to Anderson, there are a variety of rules the agency doesn’t routinely enforce, from saying the Pledge of Allegiance to certain lunchroom standards.  Minimum grade policy isn’t at the top of anyone’s enforcement list.”

Now there’s legal precedent for the law—and a raised profile that makes it more likely districts who don’t comply will receive a formal grievance from disgruntled parents or teachers. “The strategy seems strained and strange to us,” said Richard Kouri of the Texas State Teachers’ Association. “I was never real clear on where that suit was going in the first place.”

Hartman assures me the new decision will actually help failing students.  A minimum grade policy, he told me, “postpones that moment when all of the adults in the school should be saying this is an emergency situation.”

But shouldn’t adults already be saying that about the dropout rate as a whole?