Lowering High School Passing Grade Creates Frustration at College Level

By Michelle Sartor

Some high school students heading back to class will have an easier time passing, thanks to a recent change in grading. Education officials in Bayonne decided to lower the passing rate for courses from 70 to 65 for three years to test out.

Officials there said that the change will allow more students to succeed and it will put the district more in line with others in the area, which have a passing rate of 65.

Bayonne isn’t the only school district to make changes to its passing level in New Jersey. Trenton Central High School implemented changes from a number system to letter grades in 2010, which resulted in teachers complaining that some students who failed were receiving passing grades. Officials there said the change was made for consistency from elementary grade levels through high school.

The principal of Clifton High School suggested earlier this year that the district should decrease its passing level from 70 because many other districts had a cutoff of 60 or 65.

Other districts have moved in the other direction, making it more difficult for students to pass. The Mount Olive school board decided to eliminate D grades in 2010 for middle school and high school students, meaning students had to score at least a 70 to pass instead of a 65.

There are no state guidelines for passing grades and the decision is up to the local boards of education, without any involvement from the New Jersey Department of Education. The state entity sets how many courses students must pass to graduate as well as requirements for the state’s standardized tests including the High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), a requirement for graduation.

Public Affairs Officer for the New Jersey School Boards Association Michael Yaple said the decision on the passing rate should be done locally.

“If a grading system isn’t working, it’s the duty of the administrators and the school board to try to improve it. Ultimately, that’s the nature of a school board. People can frame out their systems with what works best for their community,” he said. “If they don’t like it, they have someone local that they can turn to to make further changes.”

Passing levels shouldn’t be mandated at the state level, according to Yaple, because not every community has the same needs. “Grading systems are not uniform from school district to school district,” he said. “And grading isn’t even uniform within school districts or even from one classroom to another.”

The lack of consistency in grading is frustrating to Lisa Kasper, director of undergraduate admissions at Montclair State University. To try to make the system fair, MSU admissions personnel recalculate every applicant’s GPA to a 4.0 scale. If a student’s high school has a numeric GPA, Kasper said MSU averages the grades and converts them to the 4.0 scale. If the student’s high school assigns letter grades, there is a standard number given for each letter grade. Additional points are awarded to students who took AP and honors courses, as well as to those who took additional years of math, science and foreign language classes.

Whether students attend a prestigious private school or a low-performing public school, Kasper said the GPA calculation works the same way. “We never want to punish or reward a student based on geography or economics because that’s where we really fall into bad places that we don’t want to go,” she said.

Kasper said since the process at MSU equalizes applicants’ grades, the high school passing levels don’t matter to her too much. She also said there isn’t much difference between a D and an F in her mind. “If I’m seeing a grade and it’s a 67, whether that school equates that as a D or an F, I’m not looking at it as a good grade,” she said.

Some applicants who aren’t accepted at MSU are surprised because they believe their GPAs are better than average. “Students are very, very shocked when they get through the college admissions process and they realize that their 3.2 really isn’t a 3.2,” Kasper said. “I feel like the student and the family are really the ones getting hurt by this. I don’t think this helps anybody.”

Kasper believes lowering passing rates can have negative effects. “It’s frustrating that we seem to be just as a society lowering the goal post. And we’re really not helping anyone,” she said. “What we’re doing is giving the student and the parent a false sense of what their GPA really means.”

While some criticize decisions to lower the passing rate over fears of falling academic standards, Yaple pointed out that all students still need to pass the HSPA in order to graduate.

He also said colleges “realize that a 90 in one school district might not be the same as a 90 in another school district.” Therefore, he said colleges look at other aspects of a student besides grades, including class rank, difficulty of courses and extracurricular activities.

Director of Applicant Services for University Undergraduate Admissions at Rutgers University Phyllis Micketti said that admissions personnel look at each applicant on a case-by-case basis and don’t focus on the passing level at the high school.

“We all will look to see whether or not students are passing all their courses of course, but the more competitive a school is, it’s not going to matter for a competitive college if the passing grade for example is a 65 or 70 or if it’s a 60 because most of their students are going to be at the higher level from that school anyways,” Micketti said.

She explained that schools have a variety of grading systems — including one in New Jersey that has a 1-20 scale — and a variety of course offerings.

“Competitive schools overall will look at has the student challenged him or herself as much as possible within that particular high school,” Micketti said. “Not all schools have AP courses for example, but they still could be extremely competitive in the coursework that they offer to their students.”

Micketti also pointed out that most schools she’s seen have passing levels somewhere in the 60s.

When education officials make the move to adjust the passing level, it makes headlines. “Any time you change it, it always leads to controversy,” Yaple said. He explained that when New Jersey made changes to the passing level on state exams — the NJ ASK and the HSPA — there was outcry because the number of students passing decreased after the exams’ passing levels were raised.

“If you go too high one way, then parents will say that students are being excluded. If you go the other way, then other parents will say it sends the wrong message,” Yaple said. “No matter what you do, it’s always going to cause controversy.”

Just because the topic may be difficult, Yaple said it’s the responsibility of education officials to do what’s right for their district. “That’s why these people are in the position they are,” he said. “If they feel that something’s not working for their community, it’s their job to try to improve it.”