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Decision No. 15,321

Appeal of T.M. and A.M., on behalf of their daughter R.M., from action of the Board of Education of the Mohawk Central School District and Superintendent Joyce Caputo regarding a grading policy.

Decision No. 15,321

(November 7, 2005)


Ferrara, Fiorenza, Larrison, Barrett & Reitz, P.C., attorneys for respondent, Henry F. Sobota, Esq., of counsel


MILLS, Commissioner.--Petitioners appeal actions of the Board of Education of the Mohawk Central School District ("respondent board" or "board") and its superintendent (collectively "respondents") concerning a grading policy for Senior Choir. The appeal must be dismissed.

The district offers "Senior Choir" as a full-year, one-half-credit course that students in grades 9 through 12 can apply toward fulfilling the arts requirement for graduation. Petitioners' daughter, R.M., participated in the Senior Choir during the 2002-2003 and 2003-2004 school years.

Apparently, a conflict between petitioners and the choir teacher arose sometime in the spring of 2003, when R.M. missed the deadline to perform in the New York State School Music Association ("NYSSMA") program. Petitioners faulted the teacher who, in turn, responded that R.M. had repeatedly failed to provide the requisite information for registration. The teacher also misread R.M.'S attendance record when calculating the 2002-2003 4th quarter grade. Once it came to her attention, apparently upon petitioners' inquiry, she apologized and revised the grade. There was also a misunderstanding involving R.M.'s absence from rehearsals for a school play staged by the Drama Club with which the teacher was involved.

During the summer and fall of 2003, petitioners continued to request information on grading and extra-credit criteria for Senior Choir. The teacher, the high school principal and the superintendent responded to their questions in memoranda, telephone calls and meetings. Petitioners received written copies of the teacher's grading rubrics and course outlines, as well as attendance policies.

Beginning in the fall of 2003, the teacher also began supplying petitioners, at their request, with special weekly progress reports on R.M.'s performance in class. In November 2003, petitioners contacted the State Education Department's ("SED") Office of Elementary, Middle, Secondary and Continuing Education. Staff in that office provided petitioners with pertinent regulations and SED's curriculum guide for music and arts education. They advised petitioners that grading procedures and award of credits are the responsibility of the school district and advised them to work with the district to resolve their issues. This appeal ensued.

Petitioners contend the grading policy for Senior Choir is subjective, the grading rubrics are generic and that respondents have been unresponsive to their concerns. Petitioners request that respondents provide documentation outlining the curriculum and requirements of Senior Choir and how they relate to SED's learning standards. Petitioners also request that respondents make objective criteria available to both parents and students. Petitioners finally ask that Senior Choir either be held to the same criteria and grading procedures as other district full-credit courses or be reclassified as a non-credit extracurricular activity.

Respondents contend that the appeal is untimely as to events that occurred more than 30 days prior to the commencement of this appeal, including the grading error, the NYSSMA program and the drama club play. Respondents state that they have repeatedly tried to respond to petitioners' concerns, that they have provided petitioners with weekly status reports on R.M.'s performance in Senior Choir, and that all levels of educational and administrative staff have worked to satisfy petitioners' demands. Respondents assert that course information is distributed to the students and posted in the choir teacher's classroom. Respondents deny that the grading policy is solely subjective or that it is arbitrary, capricious or unreasonable.

Initially, I will address respondents' procedural objection. An appeal to the Commissioner must be commenced within 30 days from the making of the decision or the performance of the act complained of, unless any delay is excused by the Commissioner for good cause shown (8 NYCRR �275.16; Appeal of O'Brien, 44 Ed Dept Rep 43, Decision No. 15,092; Appeal of Spina, 43 id. 354, Decision No. 15,016).Petitioners do not appear to be contesting individual acts by respondents. Rather, their primary dispute seems to be with the standards respondents used to grade and grant extra credit in Senior Choir. Petitioners' requests for information include letters dated January 20, 2004 and February 3, 2004, and they commenced this appeal on February 17, 2004. Therefore, to the extent petitioners contest grading policies for this course, I will not dismiss their appeal as untimely.

The appeal, however, must be dismissed on the merits. Education Law �1709(3) gives boards of education broad authority "to prescribe the course of study by which pupils of the district shall be graded and classified." Student grading policies and practices lie within this broad discretion and will only be set aside where they are clearly arbitrary or unreasonable (Education Law �1709(3); Appeal of M.D. and I.D., 41 Ed Dept Rep 184, Decision No. 14,658; Appeal of R.W., 40 id. 671, Decision No. 14,580). In an appeal to the Commissioner, a petitioner has the burden of demonstrating a clear legal right to the relief requested and the burden of establishing the facts upon which petitioner seeks relief (8 NYCRR �275.10; Appeal of Romeo, 44 Ed Dept Rep 149, Decision No. 15,128; Appeal of Patton, et al., 42 id. 226, Decision No. 14,832; Appeal of Pope, 40 id. 473, Decision No. 14,530).

According to respondents, the grading policy for Senior Choir is: 50% chorus rehearsals; 25% vocal lessons (minimum 5 per quarter); and 25% concert attendance and performance. In each of these categories, a student is graded on attendance and the quality of his or her participation. Students may earn up to two points each quarter of extra credit for performances and musical activity outside of the regular school programs. R.M. received extra credit points for her private vocal lessons and performances for charitable organizations.

Although it is not entirely clear from the petition, petitioners appear to assert that the grading policy for this course lacks objective standards such as written tests. The choir teacher states that she designed her grading rubric specifically for Senior Choir. That rubric provides a comprehensive guide to the standards students are expected to meet and the grade range for each standard. For example, a student who has not achieved any knowledge of "solfege " falls into the lowest grade level bracket, while each progressive step from small use of solfege to successful and meaningful attempts advance through numerical grade ranges. Petitioners were supplied with the Scope and Sequence for Senior Choir which articulates, in detail, the standards for the class. Petitioners have not established that this rubric is unreasonable or an abuse of respondents' discretion.

It also appears that petitioners object to a deduction in their daughter's grade because she missed required vocal lessons. Prior Commissioner's decisions have acknowledged that participation is logically related to a student's performance and properly reflected in a pupil's final grade (seeAppeal of Pappas, 39 Ed Dept Rep 310, Decision No. 14,246; Appeal of a Child with a Handicapping Condition, 32 id. 83, Decision No. 12,766; Appeal of Burns, 29 id. 103, Decision No. 12,235). In this case, it appears that participation, through performance at lessons, choir rehearsals and performances, is a major factor in determining a student's grade. This is not unreasonable in a course such as Senior Choir, which relies on group participation.

In conclusion, I cannot under these circumstances find the grading policy to be arbitrary or capricious.