Hamilton County school board members differ on whether 50% baseline grading rule helps student success

Staff photo by Olivia Ross  / Board members Larry Grohn, Rhonda Thurman, Gary Kuehn and Karitsa Jones sit at a Hamilton County school board meeting Oct. 20.
Staff photo by Olivia Ross / Board members Larry Grohn, Rhonda Thurman, Gary Kuehn and Karitsa Jones sit at a Hamilton County school board meeting Oct. 20.

A grading practice known as the "50% rule" that tries to motivate students with a minimum grade even for those who earned below that mark has become controversial at Hamilton County Schools.

School board member Larry Grohn, R-East Ridge, wrote a letter to a local news outlet in which he expressed concerns after learning in May that East Ridge High School had implemented the rule and questioned why recommendations from a pandemic-era grading memo were still in effect.

"Implementing a strategy of 'no grade lower than 50' rewards some students who make marginal, if any, attempts on course work," Grohn wrote.

In October 2020, the district outlined six strategies to address student failure rates that could be implemented during the transition back to school after the disruption from the pandemic the previous school year.

One of the strategies was to give students the "opportunity to submit an assignment to achieve a baseline grade," according to a memo Hamilton County Superintendent Justin Robertson handed out to the board at Thursday's meeting.

Board member Gary Kuehn, R-Ooltewah, said the grading practice existed when he was the principal of the former Hamilton County Adult High School, now known as the Harrison Bay Future Ready Center. He got emotional as he described the effect it had on students who were able to greatly improve their grades, calling the 50 "a saving grace."

"The 50 was never looked at as a gimme," Kuehn said. "It was looked at as a little bit of compassion."

He added that the policy had existed for at least the tenures of the four superintendents before Robertson.

The 50% rule has sparked controversy nationwide as districts aim to improve student success rates. Proponents argue that if a student misses a major assignment due to a home-life situation and receives a zero, it's much more difficult to recover academically than with a 50. Opponents say it allows students to pass even if they've only done minimal work.

Responding to Grohn's mention of East Ridge High School's grading rules, Robertson said the school had very clear procedures in place for students to earn the minimum grade, including second-chance contracts and grade repair. For instance, if a student had a 30% at the end of the first quarter, the teacher would put a 50 in the grade book with a note of the actual grade, and the student would work on grade repair until they had earned the 50.

Grohn said the grading strategies should have been approved by the school board. Robertson said grading practices are an administrative decision that does not fall under the policies overseen by the board.

"I want to be clear that there's nobody that is trying to do anything that is outside of the boundaries, specifically of state board policy, but more importantly this board's policy," Robertson said.

Other board members expressed their frustrations that Grohn decided to publicize his complaints before discussing the issue with the rest of the board.

"Now you're talking to us about it, but I feel like the community already has an opinion developed about it because it went out that way," board member Karitsa Jones, D-Chattanooga, said. "I just think it was in bad taste to put it out into the world and now you want to come and talk to us about it."

Contact Shannon Coan at scoan@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6396.

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