“50% Rule”: Is the new trend in HS grading fair?

Sunnyside District joins others in dropping traditional A-F grading practice
KOLD News 6-6:30 p.m. recurring
Published: Sep. 28, 2021 at 2:07 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - Making the grade has taken on a whole new meaning since the coronavirus crisis turned the education system upside down.

One Southern Arizona district is re-examining it’s grading system this school year, one parent is speaking out about his concerns on whether it’s fair.

The A to F grading scale for assignments has been used for about a century.

Making the grade has taken on a whole new meaning since the coronavirus crisis turned the...
Making the grade has taken on a whole new meaning since the coronavirus crisis turned the education system upside down.(KOLD)

But Sunnyside district believes it’s antiquated and it’s changed how it calculates, describes and reports student performance at least for now.

Other Southern Arizona districts have already moved away from that traditional practice.

But why the change, and is it the right call?

It’s a different playing field in high school classrooms in the Sunnyside district.

The A to F grading scale has been modified.

Half of the grading scale is now erased. It’s called the 50% rule.

So what does that mean? The 50% line is now a 0.

One Sunnyside parent, who doesn’t want to be identified, said, “If what normally would be a zero for assignments not turned in, they’re automatically given a 50 percent. They can’t get lower than a 50% at this point.”

He believes it’s not fair to his daughter who puts in 100 percent effort and turns in assignments on time.

Sunnyside district is re-examining its grading system.
Sunnyside district is re-examining its grading system.(KOLD)

“It seems a lot of these students are going to be passing a lot easier,” he said, “And it doesn’t seem like a fair playing field.”

And on the surface, Sunnyside Chief Academic Officer Pamela Betten said.

“If you just looked at it as a 50, I could see how that argument gets formed and how that perception comes about, but it’s still an F. If you do nothing, you still have an F,” she said.

A student who turns in nothing still gets an F so that begs the question: why the change?

What’s the logic behind using the 50% rule?

Leon Villalobos, a Freshman algebra teacher in Desert View High School, says the district is balancing what’s fair for student success. It’s a concept known as equitable grading.

“We’re not giving a student a zero or an F because the answer’s not correct,” he said.

Instead, he said, credit is given to students for understanding even some of a problem’s solution.

“So for example, maybe they do a couple of steps correctly, but then somewhere along the line in their work, they did it incorrectly. Well it shows me that they kind of understand it. That’s why we’re using the equitable grading instead of saying, oh, the whole thing is wrong we’re giving you an F and that penalizes the student.”

To even get to a D means leaping from 0 to 60 percent.

“I’ve noticed that every time a student has received a zero, they started shutting down. They didn’t want to do it anymore,” Villalobos said.

Betten said too much weight is placed in that F range, meaning the grade scale is not balanced or equitable.

“The grading scale we all have known is zero to 60% is an F, everything else is 10% up.,” said Betten, “And so it’s disproportionately towards failure. And so really looking at that to say how for a student who’s down there and they get a couple low grades, you have a very difficult time digging their way out.”

This concept of equitable grading is not new.

There’s been a lot of discussion around the book “Grading for Equity”, which focuses on “the grade you’re getting is around what you actually know, what you’ve learned, not just what you’ve actually done or completed or checked off,” said Betten.

So far, Villalobos said, he’s noticed students are feeling a little bit more positive, as the new grading system allows them to go back and correct their mistake.

Sunnyside district move away from traditional A-F grading system
Sunnyside district move away from traditional A-F grading system(KOLD)

Betten said this is a huge paradigm shift in grading practices.

“And it really, at its core, why it matters is because it has to be around what kids learn,” she said.

But for this shift to work requires understanding from students and parents, and more importantly buy-in from all the teachers. At this time, Betten sais, the district doesn’t have that.

“That’s one of the other reasons we haven’t shifted policy yet because we’re really deep in conversation,” she said.

Villalobos said he didn’t at first. He says he’s been part of a grading committee now made up of 120 teachers to discuss and develop equitable practices.

“We’re still working out the kinks,” said Villalobos, “We’re trying to get the parents and students involved now.”

Betten said it’s a big change, involving lots of emotions, since grading cis very personal. And if it doesn’t seem to take hold, Betten said the district will revert to the traditional grading practice.

KOLD News 13 also checked with all the other big districts in our region.

Marana, Amphi and Catalina Foothills have already moved away from the traditional grading practice.

Amphi and Marana use the 50% rule. Catalina Foothills uses the 4-point system used in colleges and one of the high schools in Marana uses it as well.

Responses from districts on current grading practice:


Tucson Unified is not exploring any changes in grading practices at this time.


We instituted the 50 percent rule last academic year in our secondary schools.


NUSD has not implemented this grading practice. During the closure, we had made concessions with regards to grading, but have since returned to traditional grading practices.


We haven’t have any discussions on changing our grading practices.


Our elementary schools all use standards-based grading and reporting. At the secondary level all of our schools grade using a standards-based grading mindset. Each secondary schools is continuing to evolve their grading practices. There are several that are farther along on this process than others. We established district grading guidelines during the Spring 2017. We started to seriously evolve our elementary grading practices during 18-19 school year…secondary schools started the conversation the following school year. The conversations continues at the secondary level.

Tanque Verde

We are not changing or discussing any changes. We continue to follow our current board policy.

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