For years, Chicago's Robeson High School has produced more dropouts than graduates. The school is part of a pilot project this year to try to prevent students from quitting. And that is casting a light on Robeson's grading system. Students arrive at this neighborhood high school well below grade level. But teachers and administrators know that kids who flunk classes as freshmen are much more likely to eventually drop out. For many, giving kids an “F” is a real dilemma.
Related: Keeping Mykelle in class
Related: 50/50 Series: The Odds of Graduating
“There's definitely a sense of, 'We've gotta move these kids through.' Even though they're not even close to grade level.”--Caitlin Ring, English teacher
Freshman Mykelle Wheeler got off to a rough start at Robeson High School. He flunked every subject but one the first quarter—thanks in part to a lot of class cutting. But by the semester—which is when students earn credits toward graduation—Mykelle had turned all but one of those grades into Cs and Ds. He had a BIG incentive to get his grades up…his mom offered him tickets to Lil' Wayne.
MYKELLE: I started going to class on time—started turning in all my work.
Well, not ALL, but I started working a little harder.
But even though Mykelle's grades are better, his mom says she doesn't know how he did it.
MRS. WHEELER: No, actually I don't. Really, I don't. I can't say I see much of a change in anything. Either I or his dad always ask: What about your homework? “Oh, I do it in school— or this, that, and the other.” I'm like, I don't see you with no pencils, pens…What do you work with at school? “My stuff is in my locker.” Well, where's your book bag? “At school.”
ambi: Today we're going to catch up on some of the reading that we're behind on…
Like a lot of 9th grade teachers, Mykelle's English teacher is new to Robeson. Caitlin Ring came straight from Barnard College, where she studied English and writing. At the beginning of the year, Ring issued Mykelle and his classmates two brand-new novels, She was going to help them find meaning in those pages. It wasn't long before she'd collected the books again.
RING: Whoever thought that giving fresh freshmen two novels that they need to carry around, bring to class, read on their own—it's just not gonna happen. By the second or third class there were only like six people who actually knew where their books were.
ambi: So it's a red day sheet, a blue-purple day sheet, a bright yellow day sheet, and a green day sheet.
Now, instead of essays and discussions, Ring makes color-coded worksheets, a different color for every day. She says it's helped students focus. And instead of assigning students to read—she tried that initially—she now reads aloud to them.
ambi: So, Get out your books and turn to page 99. I'm just going to read to you and you're going to fill out your green day sheets
Student: No, you're gonna go over it with us!
I'm going to go over it with you.
This day only 17 students are here—about half the class. Mykelle listens to Lil' Wayne through his earphones, a couple students sleep.
ambi: Mykelle, make sure you're on this reading with us.
Three students follow along as Ring reads. She's had to learn to be content with even a weak attempt at an assignment.
RING: My standards have gone down so much since working here. Part of me, when the kids show up and they sit down and write anything, whether it's right or wrong, I want to pass them. Which is really unfair to them, because most of them can't do the work.
ambi: MYKELLE: Can I get my stamp?
RING: Mostly the reasons that I fail people, is because they don't come to school.
REPORTER: So basically if you just show up and …What? Do anything?
RING: Uh –huh.
REPORTER: You get a D at least?
Ring and other teachers at Robeson say students don't comprehend what they're reading. But 70 percent of Ring's students passed the semester and earned their credit toward graduation. CPS has no uniform policy or philosophy on grading. And it's not an easy issue, especially in a school system that includes the best and worst schools in the state. Should kids who are poorly prepared for high school be held to the same standards as other kids in the city who are well prepared? Robeson's principal says it's impossible.
ambi: staff professional development meeting
MORROW: … with creative ways—and let me just say—CREATIVE ways to deal with it. Now, the last thing the Board of Education wants is high failure rates.
At a professional development day at the end of the first quarter, principal Gerald Morrow tells teachers they've got to evaluate students on their PROGRESS. He's talking to them about how to enter grades in the district's computerized grade book—which sets the bar for a passing grade remarkably high—at 75 percent.
MORROW: Whatever you put down in Gradebook as the grade, that's what YOU put down in Gradebook as the grade. Nobody can tell you what to put down. They can just give you a scale. If Gerald got a 55, but you know the last time Gerald took an exam he got a 35 …yeah, he got a 55, and he's still failing. But you see growth. You see improvement.
Morrow wants teachers to give kids points based on that improvement.
MORROW: Now if you put down he got a 55 but you write 85—all it's gonna do is add up what YOU put in it. That's the beautiful thing about computers. They only do what the human tell it to do.
The district knows that this sort of thing happens at schools across the city. One district official said some principals have told teachers outright not to give Fs. Ring was at that Robeson staff meeting.
RING: There's definitely a sense of, 'We've gotta move these kids through,' even though they're not even close to grade level.
The strange thing is, before she began working here, Ring would have torn into this sort of thinking. Now she sees it as a real moral dilemma.
RING: Part of me thinks that they just need that diploma. They just need it.
For Ring, it's bad to pass kids unprepared to their sophomore year—she still sees that as fundamentally unjust. But maybe it's not as bad as putting them on a path to the streets. Statistics show that 9th graders who flunk two core subjects are four times less likely to graduate.
Morrow says students come to Robeson so far behind it's unrealistic to expect them to master the curriculum the district has laid out. If he did, everyone would flunk. As it is, 40-percent of freshman failed at least two of their core courses first semester. Morrow says Robeson teachers aren't pressured to give kids passing grades.
MORROW: No. They're challenged to come up with different ways in which they can instruct a kid, they're challenged to come up with different ways in which they can evaluate a kid who's come to them below level.
Teachers aren't just adapting to students' low academic level at Robeson—they're also adapting to dismal student motivation and really low expectations of what it means to be a high school student. Teachers don't hand out books because students won't bring them to class. They change what they teach because they know so many students will be absent. They don't assign homework.
PETERS: We would have over 75-percent of the kids would not do it.
This is Jeremy Peters, Mykelle's civics teacher.
PETERS: And that would throw the failure rate wildly off track.
High schools across the district are under increased scrutiny this year for the number of freshman they keep “on track” to graduate. But the only way for schools to do that is to get fewer students to flunk.
Paige Ponder heads up district efforts to improve the graduation rate. She says grade inflation is a concern.
PONDER: Efforts to keep kids from failing are not bad. That is exactly what we want them to do. Now do we want them to give a kid a C who never showed up to their class? Of course not. We want the grades to reflect true learning. That's what we're going for.
She says the district needs clearer grading guidelines—it's something CPS is set to tackle in the coming months.
PONDER: I think it's really been very much left up to the struggle of the individual teacher—and I think they really feel that. Especially as we really turn the spotlight on the freshman on-track rate—which is…all it is is grades.
ambi: English class So, at the point where we left off, Jack just got to Cape May, right? They're just about to arrive in New York, where they're going to meet Rick…
Mykelle's teachers say he does well on quizzes and tests, and that helped him earn his passing grades, even though he's cutting classes again. First semester, Mykelle was absent 21 days—about a quarter of all class time. He passed his courses despite a CPS guideline that a lot of teachers don't agree with—it says students should flunk after missing 18 days in the semester. Some Robeson students missed 25, 30, even 35 days without receiving a single F.
RING: Mykelle, do you want all the make up work?
ambi: Another student: You've got a lot of writing, baby! You missed this whole week of school, didn't you?!
After being out sick for nearly a week, Mykelle did four days of makeup work in about 20 minutes one day, by copying off another student in the back of class. He filled out answers to questions about a novel he hadn't read, then called on Ring to get his grade for that work—he got a C.
RING: So, Mykelle, I want you to come to 9th period so you can read this book. And we're going to have to go over these concepts. You're gonna have to get that before the exam next week.
Mykelle didn't go to ninth period—in fact, only five students did.
ambi: It's three boys and two girls up in here!
Mykelle has learned this lesson well in ninth grade—he's calculated how little he can do and still get a passing grade. If he keeps it up, he'll probably graduate.