Shiprock High adopts "no-zero" grade policy

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

SHIPROCK, February 21, 2013

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T he adoption of a "no-zero" grade policy at Shiprock High School means that a 50 percent is the lowest grade a student can receive for an "F."

Anything lower than a 50 percent such as a 39 percent grade or "zero," for example, no longer constitutes an "F."

Last month, Principal Rick Edwards and the school's department chairs agreed to adopt the "no-zero" policy, saying assignments should be based upon appropriate and measurable learning standards, skills and concepts.

Central Consolidated School District spokesman James Preminger told the Navajo Times in an interview on Feb. 15 the "grade change policy" primarily applies to daily assignments, not quarterly assessments or regular tests.

"The change that was made was to create a more equitable system that reflected learning," said Preminger, official spokesman for the district.

He added that the point spread for an "F," which is between 59-50 percent, only made sense to adopt because the point spread rule also applies to letter grades As, Bs, Cs and Ds.

For As, the spread ranges from 90-100 percent, 80-89 percent for Bs, 79-70 percent for Cs and 60-69 percent for Ds.

"Rather than have an 'F,' zero to 59, an 'F' is more in line with the rest of that grading scale," Preminger said. "So an 'F' would be 50 to 59. Still failing, but you have the point spread as the other letter grades. And that's important."

"If you have a 50, you have a chance to pull yourself out to passing with a 50," Preminger added. "If you're given a 20, as a grade, as an 'F,' it's a grade killer."

Preminger pointed to research studies that back up Shiprock's grade change policy.

One of those research studies is "Effective Grading Practices," by Douglas B. Reeves, located on the ASCD, or Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, website.

According to Reeves, there are three ineffective grading practices, including the use of zeros for missing work.

"Despite evidence that grading as punishment does not work and the mathematical flaw in the use of the zero on a 100-point scale, many teachers routinely maintain this policy in the mistaken belief that it will lead to improved student performance," he writes.

"Defenders of the zero claim that students need to have consequences for flouting the teacher's authority and failing to turn in work on time," he added. "They're right, but the appropriate consequence is not a zero; it's completing the work - before, during, or after school, during study periods, at 'quiet tables' at lunch, or in other settings."

Shiprock High's new grading policy became news on Feb. 14, when KOB TV in Albuquerque retrieved Edwards' Jan. 7 letter he wrote to teachers about the grade change, which took effect at the beginning of this semester.

In his letter, Edwards wrote how staff during their Jan. 7 professional development day discussed grading practices and agreed on common grading practices for each department and for the school as a whole.

"All teachers are expected to adhere to these guidelines," Edwards wrote.

Some of those guidelines Edwards emphasizes include assignments and projects being graded between a 24 and 72 hour period, accepted late work will receive no less than 80 percent of full credit, and little or no homework will be given other than practice.

Teachers' grade books, Edwards said, should be based on learning and is to be determined by department, either as content or standards based.

In the letter, Edwards wrote, "Do we give ZEROS? NO, a 50 percent will be entered in place of zeros. No grade lower than 50 percent will be entered."

Preminger said Shiprock High's new grade policy also got the attention of various media news outlets because David Fierke, president of the Central Consolidated Education Association, the district's union for teachers, opposes the leadership and administration of Superintendent Don Levinski.

Levinski is undergoing the board's annual evaluation as superintendent of the 3,000-square-mile school district, Preminger said.

"Suddenly, we've had news stories started appearing not related necessarily to the evaluation, but nonetheless things to create a negative impression," Preminger said.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Fierke, an English teacher at Kirtland Central High, said a "vast majority of teachers are against" the new grading policy, including those at Shiprock High."

"The district has been emphasizing student accountability and achievement," he said. "This seems like a major step backwards."

Fierke said a Shiprock math teacher, name unknown, conducted calculations and found that with the new policy a student would only need to do 14 percent of assigned work, and still pass.

"We are hoping that the school board is going to look at this," he added. "This certainly needs school board approval and what has happened at Shiprock High has not been approved by the school board."

Shiprock High's new grading policy also comes after data from 2012 determined the district's high school graduation as one of the best in the state, and the highest in San Juan County the last two years.

"In 2012, the CCSD high school graduation rate beat the state graduation rate for the first time ever as a district and (the district has) the highest graduation rate in the entire county," according to Matthew Tso, president of the CCSD school board, in an email to the Navajo Times.

According to the data, the district's Newcomb and Kirtland Central High Schools are two of the top high schools in the county in terms of graduation rates.

In 2011, Newcomb High School was rated as the top high school in San Juan County with the highest graduation rate. Piedra Vista High in Farmington was second, followed by Bloomfield High School.

For 2012, Kirtland Central improved its graduation rate by 13.4 points over its 2011 graduate rate to an 80 percent graduation rate, and, as a result, had the highest graduate rate in the county last year. Piedra Vista was second with 76 percent, while Newcomb was third at 75 percent.

Shiprock High, however, saw a decrease in its graduation rate over the two-year period. In 2011, it had a graduation rate of 66 percent and last year it decreased to 65.4 percent.

"Will this help? Yes, we hope so," Preminger said about the "no-zero" grade policy. "We believe this will make an impact. Students need confidence to do their work...if there is a fair grading system to pass their classes."

He added the grading system doesn't affect the New Mexico Standards Based Assessment, a state-mandated test high school students are required to take and pass before graduating with a diploma.

"Is it an entitlement to give someone a 50 that is an 'F'? We don't think so," Preminger said. "Instead we believe in student growth, in the student's ability to recover and improve themselves…having a 10-point spread for all letter grades from A to F allows that to occur."

CCSD renews Levinski in close vote

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi

WINDOW ROCK - By a vote of 3 in favor and 2 opposed, the Central Consolidated School District School Board renewed the contract of Superintendent Don Levinski during a regular school board meeting on Tuesday night.

School board members Matthew Tso, Christine Aspaas and Lupita White voted in favor of renewing Levinski's contract, while Hoskie Benally and Randy Manning voted against it.

James Preminger, district spokesman, said on Wednesday the board's decision comes after 10 hours of deliberations over three board meetings held in executive session.

"Between the three meetings, it was pretty obvious sitting outside the executive session there was filibustering going on," he said. "The board president decided the vote."

Levinski's new contract replaces the original contract, which was set to expire in June 2014. The new contract is good until June 2016.

In an interview Wednesday morning, Tso said he voted in favor of Levinski to ensure that stable leadership continues from the administration all the way down to the schools.

"The vote that was taken last night was for stability and to keep moving forward with positive changes and improvements in all of our schools," he said.

Under Levinski, Tso said the school district was able to achieve many goals, including work in Common State Standards and other initiatives to raise student test scores and improve education.

Another accomplishment under Levinski is the Feb. 5 passage of a school board bond that will maintain school buildings and continued investment of technology for students. The bond raises property taxes to $7.25 per $1,000 of actual taxed accessed value of a home.

Tso also pointed out Levinski's administration, unlike many in the past, has worked hard to build positive relationships with the Navajo Nation and New Mexico Public Education Department to raise student test scores and get them ready for college.

"I want to congratulate Kirtland Central High School for having a graduation rate of 80.7 percent for the Class of 2012," Levinski said. "It was the highest in San Juan County - higher than Farmington, Bloomfield, Aztec, and Piedra Vista high schools."

Newcomb High's Class of 2012 had the third highest graduation rate in San Juan County.

The district's graduation rate for 2012, according to Levinski, was also higher than the state's average graduation rate of 70.3 percent.

"The decisions made by the present administration shows that the actions taken are working," Tso said. "The data and results back up the decisions. We can't stop now, switch out and start over by putting in someone new."

Efforts to contact Benally and Manning for comment were unsuccessful as of press time on Wednesday.

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