Ten years ago, I had the good fortune to win the confidence of two energetic teachers, Cliff Gill and Don Phillips at Mamaroneck High School in Westchester County, N.Y. They told me exactly how they assessed their students.
Gill, a math teacher, was tough. If a student missed two homework assignments, five points were subtracted from the student’s 100-point report card grade. A third missed assignment meant another five points off. Everyone at that school knew how hard it was to get an A in Mr. Gill’s class.
Phillips, a social studies teacher, was easy. He called himself the Great Grade Inflator. If a student with poor writing skills did his best on a paper, Phillips was inclined to give the student just as high a grade as a top student who turned in college-quality work. About 90 percent of the grades in Phillips’s history courses were 90 or above on that 100-point scale.
No one asked Phillips to raise his standards. No one asked Gill to ease up. Grading at Mamaroneck High, as at most of the public high schools I have visited, is considered the teacher’s prerogative, a matter of academic freedom. A teacher who gives many F’s may be pressured to raise some of those grades to keep parents happy, but that is about as far as principals will go in interfering with teachers’ assessment decisions.
Robert M. Hartranft, a retired nuclear engineer in Simsbury, Conn., does not like this at all. He cannot understand why public school administrators, who so often declare their commitment to equal treatment of every student, put up with such outrageous and inexplicable variation in what remains the most important assessments their students get–grades on report cards.