A student at Maya Angelou Public Charter School can fail to complete any assignment or even not show up at school and still get a 40 percent for the quarter under a new grading policy.
The school, which advertises a nontraditional setting to serve students who have not done well in traditional academic environments, started the policy in its high school this year to help students who fall behind, said Chief Operating Officer Chris Tessone.
At the end of each quarter, the Dean of Academics for the high school, Chris Roorda, sent an email to each teacher with a student whose cumulative grade for the quarter was below 40 percent and asked the teacher to adjust the grade in the teacher's records.
"It's still a failing grade. This is not passing students who would not otherwise pass in a given quarter," said Tessone. "It's just to make sure that a student is not driven off path for one quarter such that they cannot pass."
As a result of the change, one teacher said she has bumped up grades for students who don't come to class.
"I have a lot of students who are on the grade book who don't really come to class, or who I don't even know who they are -- and it's the fourth quarter," said the teacher, who asked not to be named for fear of repercussion.
She said she has changed at least 20 students' grades to 40 percent in the first three quarters.
The policy was implemented just before Maya Angelou and another charter school asked the DC Public Charter School Board to categorize them as "alternative education." The proposal, which is still pending, would allow the school to meet a different standard of academic performance than other charter schools.
The grading policy is similar to others across the country that make it impossible for a student to get a zero. At several of these schools, a 50 percent is the minimum grade.
Implementing the policy districtwide can undermine teachers' authority by taking away their ability to use grades as a way to motivate students, said Michael Petrilli, executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an organization that does education research and advocacy. "A school that's serving a nontraditional population -- kids who have already dropped out -- that might be where this sort of policy makes sense."
But Linda Whittingham, a member of the Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools Board of Trustees whose son is in the 11th grade there, questioned whether changing students' grades helps students.
"The whole purpose of Maya is to get the students where they need to be -- not just upgrading points so it looks like on paper they've done it, and when they get to the next grade they're struggling," she said.