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Attendance, grade policies face scrutiny

Now that the school year is over, Hillsborough County school officials are revisiting a couple of areas of controversy: the method of evaluating young pupils and the system of encouraging older students to attend class.

In one area, district staff is proposing slight changes in the report card for pupils in grades one and two.

And in the other area, the staff is proposing that the attendance policy for junior and senior high school students be retained, even though teachers generally are opposed to the existing policy.

Both issues are to be discussed at a meeting of the Hillsborough School Board tonight.

The attendance policy has been controversial since it was implemented two years ago, but school officials have retained it because it works. School officials have concluded that the cause of the controversy is also the factor most responsible for its success: the awarding of points for attendance.

Under the system, students can gain 4 percentage points in any class in which they have perfect attendance. The points can raise their grade-point averages slightly. Students who miss class for any reason, including excused absences, lose bonus points.

Opponents argue that it is wrong to reward students just for showing up, and that students should not be penalized for excused absences, such as doctor appointments.

"We are concerned that this policy clearly penalizes students who are chronically ill or disabled," reads a letter from the Hillsborough County Pediatric Society, which was signed by several area doctors, including Dr. Christopher D. Reiner, society president.

They proposed that school officials differentiate between legitimate absences and unexcused ones.

Pete Davidsen, assistant superintendent in charge of administration, has recommended that the policy remain unchanged.

"The bottom line is that the plan seems to be working," Davidsen said. "We would be unable to administer the program if we did what (the pediatricians) suggested. It would become an administrative nightmare."

A recent survey of students and teachers shows general support for the policy among students and a fairly even split among teachers. Among students, 54 percent approved the policy, and 14 percent disapproved. A full 28 percent of the students indicated no opinion.

Among teachers, 46 percent approved, and 52 percent disapproved.

Average attendance since the policy was enacted has increased 3 percent in middle schools and junior high schools and 4 percent in high schools.

The proposed changes in the grading system are subtle, and school officials characterize them as part of the evolution of student evaluation.

Hillsborough is not the only school district tinkering with its grading system and searching for a more meaningful method of evaluating students. But Hillsborough's tinkering does not go as far as attempts in other nearby districts. Nor has it triggered as much controversy.

In neighboring Pasco County, the traditional system of A's, B's and C's was scrapped this year in favor of a different set of letter grades: E, S, P and N. Parents who objected to the system have demanded a change to a more traditional system.

Hillsborough's experiment is just a slight change from the traditional system of A's, B's and C's. The portion up for revision is the system for first- and second-graders, who have been graded this year under a system of A, B, C and N. The N replaces D's and F's and stands for "needs to develop."

After surveying more than 200 teachers at 32 schools, school officials determined that some slight changes had to be made to the report card for first- and second-graders, according to Lamar Hammer, general director of elementary education.

A committee has recommended eliminatingletter grades in the social/emotional development section of the report card and eliminating a grade for self-concept. Hammer said the district will continue to evaluate the grading systems.