Hempstead school board ends grade-changing policy

The Hempstead board of education voted to end the district’s practice of systematically changing some students’ failing grades into passing ones Thursday. Many residents in attendance at the school board town meeting were unhappy with the concerns presented to the board. Videojournalist: Chuck Fadely (July 18, 2013)

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The Hempstead board of education has ended the district's practice of systematically changing some students' failing grades into passing ones.

The decision to stop rounding up final course grades of 63 and 64 to passing scores of 65 was approved, 3-0, by the board at an emergency meeting last week.

"We decided unequivocally to make 65 passing and nothing else," board president Betty Cross said Thursday. "We will settle for nothing but the best. We know where we are academically and we are working to change that. And we will change that."

Thursday night, the board voted at its regular meeting to dismiss Carlos Ramirez, the district director of technology, who sent a letter in June to state education officials spelling out his concerns about the district's grade-boosting practice.

Deputy Superintendent Julius Brown said at the time that the practice had been designed to prevent confrontations between teachers, parents and students, and to give students a better chance of attending college.

Brown also said rounding up grades is standard public school practice. But other local school officials denied that and said the policy appeared unique to Hempstead.

Hempstead, with nearly 6,000 students, is consistently one of the lowest-performing districts on Long Island. Its graduation rate in 2011-12 was 38 percent, the lowest among the Island's 124 public school districts.

Cross and trustees JoAnn Simmons and Lamont Johnson voted to end the decades-long practice; trustees Shelley Brazley and Waylyn Hobbs Jr. were absent.

The resolution approved by the board stated: "Whether permitted by custom, practice, rules, regulations or otherwise, it shall henceforth be policy and practice of the Hempstead Union Free School District that all grading and/or scoring shall be strictly recorded and reported in accordance with the results of actual student performance in all testing, whether grade-related, uniform, standard, mandated, non-mandated or otherwise."

Hobbs, who resigned Thursday after one year on the board, said, "I was always under the belief that it wasn't a board policy, even if it was common practice. . . . I couldn't see the policy being that it was OK to change grades."

Ramirez -- fired by a 3-1 vote, with Brazley dissenting -- applauded the new policy.

"The most important thing is that they actually do it," Ramirez said before Thursday's meeting. "They are accepting and acknowledging that needs to be corrected."

Brown ordered Ramirez in a June email to amend the district's new computer score-recording program to automatically record grades of 63 and 64 as 65. But Ramirez expressed reluctance and called the policy "inappropriate" in an email exchange.

"This whole thing about the administrator getting fired, it had nothing to do with whistle-blowing," said Cross, who said Ramirez's job was on the chopping block before he wrote to the state.

Roger Tilles, Long Island's representative on the State Board of Regents, said of the decision to stop boosting grades, "I'm encouraged by their quick response to an unfortunate situation."

Tilles has said he was informed of the grade-changing by a high school administrator and forwarded the information to the State Education Department for investigation.

The Nassau County district attorney's office contacted and interviewed one staff member involved in the grade-changing and a state Education Department investigator was in the district last month, two Hempstead sources have said.

A state education department spokesman said Thursday it had no "findings" from Hempstead yet and would not confirm or deny an investigation. A Nassau district attorney spokesman declined to comment.

Maribel Toure, a parent of a rising high school senior and one of about 100 people at Thursday night's meeting, said, "If I see my son's report card, I am not sure if that really is his grade. If they are boosting the grades up, what is the real graduation rate?"

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