The road to Essex’s unified school district is ushering in all sorts of change, from financial controls and governance, down to its very name. But one major component at Essex High School will remain the same.
Essex High School has a passing grade of 70. There’s no mandated grading scale in Vermont, so local districts can set their own standards.
The scale makes EHS an outlier in Chittenden County, as the other seven public schools have lower passing grades: Burlington, Champlain Valley Union, Colchester, Milton, Mt. Mansfield and South Burlington all have a passing grade of 60. Winooski’s is 65.
For EHS, that means grades between 60 and 69 result in an F. Meanwhile, students at CVU, which has similar enrollment, receive Ds for grades in the same range.
In light of these disparities, some faculty members urged the school board to reexamine the scale in 2009. Yet the school council — the high school’s supervisory entity at the time — failed to reach a consensus, stopping the movement in its tracks.
Those in favor of keeping the 70 passing grade have said it would lower Essex High School’s academic standards.
Robin Rhodes Astor, a parent and director of enrollment operations at St. Michael’s College, doesn’t buy it.
She challenged the argument in a letter written to the U#46 school board in 2013.
“If we are, in fact, offering a high level of quality education and challenge to our students, then a more challenging grading scale doesn’t, in fact, reflect stronger performance but gives the impression that performance is weaker,” she wrote.
The board eventually decided to put off reevaluating the grading scale by citing the impending move toward proficiency-based grading. Three years later, this transition is currently underway, albeit in its early stages.
So at a meeting last month highlighting changes to the high school’s report cards, aimed at reflecting a more proficiency-based style of assessment, Astor raised the issue again.
Since the school plans to use a numeric grading system based out of 100, Astor questioned if administrators would change the grading scale.
EHS principal Rob Reardon assured her they’re looking into it but couldn’t provide a timeline.
Anytime changes in high school curriculum are proposed, questions of how it affects the college admissions process are inevitable.
Moses Murphy, an admissions counselor at the University of Vermont, doesn’t think EHS’ scale affects its students negatively.
“In our process, we are dealing with all type of grading scales throughout the country,” he said.
Inevitably, these systems vary, he said, adding UVM reviews students’ applications within the context of their school’s system.
“It’s not something I can imagine ever trips up a college,” he said.
For colleges like UVM and St. Michael’s — who both accept over 70 percent of applicants, according to The Princeton Review — Astor agrees.
She said it’s unlikely to make much difference, as they’re well versed in EHS’ grading scale. Yet at more selective schools, Astor said minor disparities can make a real difference.
“As a college admissions counselor, D-minus is different than a C-minus,” she said.
Grading scales also have financial implications for students and their families, as many merit scholarships require a high academic performance, Astor said.
For example, an EHS student with a 90 average won’t qualify for a scholarship that requires an A average, yet a student with the same numerical grade at Burlington High School would.
Additionally, most car insurance companies provide “good student” discounts, commonly allotted for students maintaining a B average.
Astor thinks these situations put Essex students at a disadvantage in Chittenden County.
If students only had work graded subjectively, then the scale might work, Astor said, as the letter grade for, say, an essay could be translated to a numeral.
Astor feels that argument falls short for subjects like math and science, however, where grades are often calculated in terms of how many questions a student gets right.
She’s sensitive to the difficulty of change and understands not wanting to transform everything at once.
“But I think if we’re looking to continue with a 0 to 100 grading scale, it’s certainly a good time to reassess,” she said.