Lower standards or a level playing field?

State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman visits a Summerville High engineering class in September 2015. Spearman was an early advocate for shifting all schools to a 10-point grading scale.

Starting this fall, South Carolina public high school students will need to score a bare minimum of 60 to earn a D in a class — down from 70 in the current school year.

Depending who you ask, it’s either good news for student athletes and college scholarship seekers, or it’s a sad day for academic standards.

State Education Superintendent Molly Spearman has said the statewide shift from a 7-point to a 10-point grading scale, which also will change the “A” grade range from 93-100 to 90-100, is an attempt to “level the playing field.” She said Palmetto State students are at a disadvantage as they vie for athletic and academic scholarships with students from neighboring North Carolina and Georgia, which have used a 10-point scale for years.

“It’s not about watering down grades,” she said in a March meeting of the S.C. Athletic Administrators Association. Skeptical eyebrows shot up around the state.

To Larry Kobrovsky, an attorney and former member of the Charleston County and state school boards, the new scale is part of a broader devaluing of high school diplomas.

“In a year or two you’ll be hearing about increased graduation and pass rates,” Kobrovsky said. “You always hear about the dumbing down of education, and this is it in real time.”

The lowest-performing students, those hovering at or below the threshold for failure, will receive the biggest leg up in the new grading system. The implications are broad, from decisions on promoting students to the next grade level to matters of athletic eligibility.

The S.C. High School League requires students to have a passing grade in five classes and an overall passing average in order to play ball. The league has not yet made any changes to the requirements based on the new scale.

The new scale has implications for students in the midrange, too. In terms of grade-point average, an important indicator for college admissions and scholarships, students who consistently earn C’s will receive a bigger boost than the lofty achievers vying for the top spots in their class. The $4,700 lottery-funded LIFE scholarship for in-state colleges requires a 3.0 cumulative GPA — an 85 in college-preparatory classes on the old scale, but just an 80 on the new one. Spearman has estimated that as many as 13,000 more students could become eligible for lottery-funded scholarships based on the new scale.

Karen Radcliffe, principal at Ashley Ridge High in Summerville and AAAA president for the S.C. High School League, said she thinks the change in scale will be a real boon for student athletes, particularly in terms of NCAA eligibility.

“The thing everyone’s worried about is that we’re going to lower our standards,” Radcliffe said. “We’re just making it fair across the board now. Our standards have been higher than everybody else’s.”

But Radcliffe added that, even as an administrator, she still doesn’t have answers to all of her questions about the new scale. For instance, she said she has not gotten a clear directive from the state on whether the new scale will apply to middle-schoolers taking courses such as Algebra I for high school credit.

In the Charleston County School District, a spokesman said middle-schoolers enrolled in high school-level courses will be graded on the 10-point scale and that principals “have indicated that they would support the use of the 10-point scale at middle schools.”

The spokesman said the district will develop new eligibility criteria for organizations like the National Honor Society and Beta Club over the summer.

North Carolina schools adopted a 10-point scale in 2014, and some education leaders feared at the time that the change would lead to grade inflation.

But according to State Board of Education member Eric Davis, the state hasn’t seen an artificial spike in graduation rates or grades — just the same slow and steady climb that’s been happening for years.

Matt Ellinwood, a policy analyst at the North Carolina Justice Center, said students who earned middling grades felt the change the most. Anecdotally, he said students who earned 90s in their classes were excited to finally get an A.

“Things like self-esteem have a big impact on your educational outcome, even though those things sound like they’re squishy and they don’t matter,” said Ellinwood, whose organization advocates for low-income North Carolinians.

A study commissioned by the North Carolina Legislature found that most states did not have a uniform grading scale, although some were moving toward one. Ultimately, Ellinwood said, classroom grading will always be subjective.

“I think it’s going to remain subjective more than something like a standardized test, and I think for good reason,” Ellinwood said. “A teacher is the one who can best make that call.”

Up until 2000, South Carolina schools did not have a uniform grading scale. Letter grades and GPA calculations varied from one district to another. Lawmakers adopted the statewide 7-point system to do away with the inconsistency, reasoning that in-state college financial aid was largely based on GPAs.

Kathy Schwalbe was an English teacher at Stratford High in Goose Creek in the late 1990s, when the school used a 10-point scale. As lawmakers debated the merits of a 7-point scale, she said teachers began to wonder what it could mean for them. Particularly as an English teacher, she knew her class was part of the gauntlet for graduation, and the threshold for passing was about to change.

But Schwalbe, who now serves as director of the College of Charleston’s Office of Student Services and Credentialing, said the fundamentals of teaching never changed.

“As classroom teachers, we always needed to calibrate and make sure we were on the same page in terms of grading and weighting of grades,” Schwalbe said.

Some grading-scale decisions will be left to school districts. In a memo released last week, Spearman wrote that scales in grades 3-8 will remain “a local decision,” although she recommended adopting the 10-point scale in middle schools “when it does not impede innovation and personalized learning.”

Skeptics remain, including Russell Ball, a science teacher at Wando High in Mount Pleasant. He said teachers can adjust the difficulty of their tests to the new grading scale, but he remains suspicious of the motives behind the change.

“I don’t think there will be much of a shift in the fall. I think there will be more students passing, and that’s the goal since graduation rate is such an important factor in rankings,” Ball said. “This is a way of perhaps artificially improving graduation rates and artificially improving the way a school looks.”

Reach Paul Bowers at (843) 937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.