'Zero to 50' challenged as grade inflation -- or perhaps, fraud... Question of grading policy and increased graduation rates in CPS

A cynic might say there are at least two ways to do anything: the right way and the "Chicago Way." When educators want children to do better, they usually reward good work, set reasonable standards for achievement, and provide extra help for those who are trying but still facing trouble. Still, some students will fail, either because they are not doing any work or because they are not mastering the material. Common sense says that's how most people want it. After all, nobody wants a nurse who can't read an IV label, or (pick your expert), for example, a bridge designed by an engineer who didn't really know much math.

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and City Colleges Chancellor Cheryl Hyman. So most people think you pass if you know the material and fail if you don't. But a school system (or a city) can also "lower the failure rate" by simply rigging the ways grades are calculated: for example, by making it almost illegal for teachers to give an "F" grade to children who have earned it. Lately, the Chicago Way has been to increase grades and graduation by eliminating, in most cases, the "F" grade no matter how little a child may have learned (or not learned).

It's also part of the electoral calculus as the February 24 municipal election nears.

As a Chicago voter, in the month of January I received one particular political mailer paid for by "Chicago for Rahm Emanuel." In the far right, inside corner of the folded mailer one reads the following quote from Cheryl Hyman, Community College Expert:

Not only have we doubled graduation rates but Mayor Emanuel will soon make it possible for every college-ready CPS graduate with at least a B average to attend City Colleges tuition free. That will help more people get ahead in Chicago.

The mailer does not identify Ms. Hyman as Chancellor, City Colleges of Chicago, and as such a member of the mayors cabinet. Hyman was appointed by then mayor Richard M. Daley in 2010 and retained by Rahm Emanuel in 2011, despite the fact that she was not an educator. She came to the City Colleges from Commonwealth Edison; her qualifications are a corporate background and an MBA from Northwestern.

Inside the mailer it more boldly states: Mayor RAHM EMANUEL is making the tough decisions so every Chicagoan in every neighborhood has a chance for a better future.

It is within this political context of a mayoral election on February 24 that as a teacher, reporter, and Chicago taxpayer, I wish to perhaps have included in discussions related to education a not-so-tough grading policy scattered throughout the Chicago Public Schools (CPS).

The common names for the apparent unofficial grading policy being implemented in a presently unknown number of schools within CPS District 299 are: 0-to-50 or no-zero.

From what we can determine, the details are tweaked differently per the schools Substance has determined are implementing it. However, heres the gist of how it works: assignments or tests turned in (or not) by any student that might otherwise be marked from numerical 0 to numerical 49 (that gamut being at an F-level for failing) are entered into Gradebook (the computerized grading system utilized by CPS) as a 50. In a school, the "0-to-50" or "no-zero" policy might apply only to homework. However, in most it appears to apply across the board for every grade entered. In some schools it is more strictly monitored and enforced by local administrations; in others, it is left up to the teachers to utilize as an option.

Grading weights and categories are a related issue. For example, in response to students having lower scores in Gradebook for assessments and homework, a schools administration might direct the weighting for assignments to now be more-or-less equal to assessments as well as requiring the lowering of the weight to be given for homework. All of the above might be considered by some (read: including taxpayers) as grade inflation or even false grading. [Disclosure: I had heard about the grading policies from teachers across the city in other schools over a few years now, but since it is presently within the door of the elementary school at which I teach, my interest in the matter has greatly increased].

I have heard from teachers who agree with the policies. I am not one of them; there is not teacher buy-in for such a policy at my school. The arguments made in favor of such grading policies are ones of balance and breaks. On the one hand, when grades range from 0 to 100, the range for a score that results in an F or D is much greater than for that of passing grades of A, B, or C; with 50 as the new 0 (or, more accurately, 0-to-49), there is compensation for such a range. And on another hand, students who receive too many zeros cannot statistically climb out of a failing hole at a certain point no matter their possible continuing efforts and thusly give up in school on doing so.

Arguments against such policies relate to reality and entitlement. Where else in life does anyone get something for nothing in such a manner? What message is being sent when a student who balls up a test paper and throws it in the garbage receives a grade score of 50? What value system are we teaching?

Personally, to date I have not heard from one taxpayer outside of the school system with whom I have spoken, from a range of liberal democrats to conservative republicans, who is in agreement with such a policy. In fact, most respond similarly to as when a friend of mine (outside the school system) described the CPS 0-to-50 policy concept to comedian Lewis Black while chatting with him in a meet-and-greet after a recent show in Joliet. Lewis Blacks reply was: Youre sh**ing me!

It appears from teacher-reporting on the issue that pressure for the 0-to-50 or no-zero grading policy directives in CPS is coming from Network levels. Teachers report that their principals tell them they are following a Network directive or that their principals were feeling the pressure from the Networks to implement such grading policies. In two cases, some teachers are under the impression that their entire Networks are following such policies (Networks 11 and 12). In one case, in which the teachers judge the pressure to be coming from the Network, the administration of the school is claiming the policy initiative as its own.

A Substance Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request re who was responsible for such grading policies in CPS resulted in the following response from Vera Prince, Executive Assistant, Chief Officer of the Communications Office: We have conducted a search for records responsive to this request. No records, responsive to your request were located. ONS and Networks do not set grading policies; grading policies are local (school-based).

This was in response to a Substance request for the following information: CPS documents related to how grading scales are determined, created, and changed for individual schools and system-wide. This FOIA request did not result in the steering of the inquiry to Board Policy adopted March 24, 2010 entitled, Grade Change (Section 605.7; Board Report 10-0324-PO1). This policy in part pronounces: The Principal is responsible for ensuring the integrity of the grades recorded and issued by their school and for the maintenance of accurate grade records. As well as: Teachers are responsible for evaluating students and for determining students grades in the subject area or activity for which the teacher is responsible.

The question then is: Where does the buck stop when teachers in some cases are pressured by principals who say they are being pressured by Networks that officially, as per CPS policy and response to the Substance FOIA request, are not connected to any such 0-to-50 or no-zero grading policies?

Does such a buck stop with the mayor in a system under mayoral control of the schools? Out in the schools, many teachers report being under sometimes even extreme pressure (some with reported Network visitors at their classroom doors; others called individually into principals offices outnumbered by the administrators present) to answer inquiries regarding the number of Ds and Fs they have given students, grades somehow becoming more-and-more the responsibility and/or fault of teachers and less-and-less anything to do with ownership on the part of students.

The message is: Do not fail students.

No one wants students to fail. However, apparently, increasingly, one magical way to fix this problem within CPS appears to be to enter grades of 50 in place of 0. This is not an issue for CPS alone. A noted increase nationwide of such grading policies is a result of the unrealistic requirements and pressures put upon school districts from the U.S. Department of Education under No Child Left Behind (Bush) and Race to the Top (Obama) legislation. Common Core is also presently a factor. From a report from the South Bend Tribune (1-26-14) by Kim Kilbride, How low is the F? Grading markups come to light: any student whose overall percentage falls below 50 will receive the benefit of having it adjusted upward, the particular policy in this case applying to grades in any class for the first grading period of each semester.

From a 2-3-12 Huff Post Education article, No-Zero Grading Policy in Lowndes County Schools Requires Retesting Opportunities For Failing Students, reporting on a story from Georgia, where 60, not 50, is the new 0; and teachers must offer students opportunities to retake tests and redo assignments until a passing grade is earned. Back in and back to Chicago Public Schools, a 10-22-13 narrative posting from teacher Gina Caneva in Catalyst Chicago, For students sake, say no to no-Zero Policy on grading, recommended: For accountability reasons, schools that have a no-zero policy should have an asterisk beside all of the numbers that are affected by the policy and explaining that the policy is in place. Her request was made after the following were the results of the implementation in her CPS school of a No- Zero Policy: Freshman on-track data increased 30 percentage points from 57 to 89 percent.

So, it comes then to the integrity of the claims for improvement in CPS touted by the Board of Education's publicity people. There is no mention, for example, of any "no-zero" or "0-to-50" grading policies in a CPS press release dated August 27, 2014 entitled: CPS Students Set Record-High Freshman On-Track Rate in 2014. The measurement takes into account freshman course grades and credits, with students considered on-track with five course credits and having failed no more than one core subject semester course during freshman year.

To date Substance has not received a reply to a FOIA request (dated 02-07-15) for: a listing of Chicago Public Schools that are implementing a No-Zero of 0-to-50 grading policy. The note on all FOIA requests states: Chicago Public Schools responds to all public records requests in accordance with the Illinois Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), 5 ILCS1-40. A response will be made within five (5) business days. If an extension of time is required, written notice will be provided within five business days and the reason for the extension.

We await information as to whether or not CPS has such a listing. In light of the recent political mailer, the question to consider is: To what extent might part of the reason a claim of a doubled graduation rate in CPS under Rahm Emanuels control of Chicagos continuing unelected School Board be due to any grade inflation resulting from 0-to-50 and/or no-zero grading policies being implemented out in the schools? Might we, the taxpayers, at least have that requested asterisk next to the data?


February 16, 2015 at 10:00 AM

By: Jean Schwab


How does a parent know whether their child just neglected to hand in an important paper or did not understand the concept? I would want to know. What if a student handed in all papers except the one graded with 50%? Somehow, this seems dishonest to a concerned parent.

February 16, 2015 at 11:57 AM

By: Kim Scipes

Zero to 50

As an educator (Associate Professor of Sociology at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Indiana) and as a parent of two Chicago Public Schools students, I found this report of practices currently taking place within CPS to be disgraceful. And even worse, I find politicians who use such practices to "enhance" their own reputations--and I'm talking about Rahm Emanuel, aka Mayor 1%--to be despicable. If you read my review of the recent book, "Corrupt Illinois," on Substance, you can realize this is just another level of corruption. Especially after this report, I cannot see any reason why anyone would vote for Mayor 1%.

February 19, 2015 at 1:08 PM

By: Susan Zupan

FOIA info update

I just wanted to add further information on Substance FOIA requests sent to the Board of Education regarding its grading policies.

1) FOIA request dated 2/5/15 on information related to grading policies in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS): "I was recently given a response of 'grading policies are local(school based).' I would like to know exactly what this means. Who exactly is responsible for the grading policy of a Chicago Public School? Who is responsible for the grading policy of a school considered on probation? Is the LSC responsible for setting the grading policy of a school, including a school considered on probation?"

The 02/17/15 response from the CPS FOIA Center was the following: "We cannot comply with the request for records within the 5 business day time limit without unduly burdening or interfering with our operations. We store the requested records in whole or in part at another location(s). Responding to the request requires that we collect a substantial number of specified records. The request is couched in categorical terms and requires that we conduct an extensive search for the records responsive to it. In order to determine whether the requested records are exempt under Section 7 of FOIA or must be redacted in part before they are disclosed, we must have the documents reviewed by the Law Department. Before we can determine whether to provide the documents in response to your FOIA request, we must consult with various departments to determine how to respond to this due to the nature of the records requested.

We will respond to your request by 2/24/15.


Felicia Matthews"

2) FOIA request dated 2/7/15 on further information related to the grading policies of CPS: "Request for a listing of all Chicago Public Schools that are implementing a No-Zero or 0-to-50 grading policy."

The 2/18/15 response from the CPS FOIA Center was the following: "We cannot comply with the request for records within the 5 business day time limit without unduly burdening or interfering with our operations. We store the requested records in whole or in part at another location(s).

We will respond to your request by 2/25/15.


Vera Prince"

February 19, 2015 at 7:12 PM

By: Patricia Ramirez

FOIA info update

As a CPS teacher, I wish I could respond to the ongoing demands of CPS for more data, assessments and other tasks that take time away from teaching by stating that, "I cannot comply with your requests without unduly burdening or interfering with my classroom operations."

February 27, 2015 at 5:19 PM

By: Theresa D. Daniels

grade inflation

I appreciate this article greatly. It's so interesting to read about the latest manifestations of grade inflation and the mandate of those who run the schools that teachers pass as many students as possible. Since 1973, when I began my teaching career, there has always been this pressure. My particular way of being fair to students and yet not burden myself with the makeups that are often make-work for the student and teacher was to forgive a certain number of the lowest grades depending on the number of grades I had. This would usually cover for the work that was missing due to absence or student oversight. In my time, there was actually one teacher I knew who thought an F was equal to a zero, and I had a hard time convincing her that an F was anywhere under the passing grade of D, but should not be a zero if the work was turned in. Even the professionals in the field often do not understand the mechanics of grading and the result is now the barring of any zeroes. Of course, work not turned in must have a zero, but it can be balanced by the forgiveness of a modest number of the lowest grades.

Add your own comment (all fields are necessary)

Substance readers:

You must give your first name and last name under "Name" when you post a comment at We are not operating a blog and do not allow anonymous or pseudonymous comments. Our readers deserve to know who is commenting, just as they deserve to know the source of our news reports and analysis.

Please respect this, and also provide us with an accurate e-mail address.

Thank you,

The Editors of Substance

Your Name

Your Email

What's your comment about?

Your Comment

Please answer this to prove you're not a robot:

1 + 4 =