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Are County’s New Policies Making the Grade?

County high schools revisit grading policy, pilot changes and debate their merits

Catherine Lien expected her junior year at Churchill to be tough. Like many of her classmates, she fears that a new grading policy at school could make the year even more stressful.

“I don’t really think it’s fair,” Lien said. “We’ve gotten so many things that are new. We’re getting the new SAT, and the new grading system. Everything’s getting thrown at us at once.”

Lien and her fellow high school students in Montgomery County Public Schools enter a year in which most schools are beginning to implement portions of Regulation IKA-RA, a county-wide system for teaching, grading and reporting on students.

ELEMENTARY AND MIDDLE schools begin grading according to new county regulations this year. High schools are not required to implement entire grading systems this year. However, mandated policy changes will begin next year for high schools. In the meantime, Wootton, Churchill and Whitman high schools are all opting to implement some parts of the grading policy for the 2004-05 year. Administrators from each participating school will discuss the new policies and their impact as the school year goes on, in hopes of evaluating them before implementation next year.

“One of our challenges is to really be looking conceptually at assessing students’ performance in some of the same ways, and some different ways,” said Churchill Principal Joan Benz. “[Another challenge] is to keep everybody informed and knowledgeable about the changes.”

“We’re doing a couple of things we think are good for [students],” said Wootton Principal Michael Doran.

One of Wootton’s new policies concerns work turned in late — the school will have “due dates” and “deadlines,” sometimes on different dates. A grade for work submitted after the due date but before the deadline cannot be marked down more than one letter grade. “We’re trying to work through enticing students to finalize their work, even if it’s after the date that it’s due,” Doran said. “It’s still worthwhile; you’re still going to get feedback.”

Homework will be graded for Wootton assignments, but students will not receive grades simply for completing homework — the "‘A’ for effort,” in that sense, is out of the picture.

At Churchill, department heads have leeway in deciding what they want to implement. The only policy that is mandatory school-wide is that students may not receive a grade lower than 50 percent on a test, quiz or assignment (see “Policy Highlights,” sidebar).

Kathlyn Carroll, assistant principal at Whitman, said the school is adopting some parts of the system as part of an overall school improvement plan. Both the 50-percent and dates/deadlines policies will be in place at Whitman this year, Carroll said.

STUDENT GOVERNMENT LEADERS at Whitman and Churchill expressed a mutual distaste for changes in the policy.

“Personally, I don’t really like it. I thought the old grading system was fine,” said Whitman’s student government president, senior Jeff Luse. “It rewarded students who did the work, and did it on time. [Homework and effort] should count for something.”

The new policy takes away the discretion of teachers to evaluate the performance of a student, said Jeremy Sherer, president of Churchill’s junior class.

“When you hire teachers, you’re placing a good deal of trust in them,” Sherer said. “Teachers are going to see things better than bureaucrats in Rockville.”

Many students in this year’s junior class of high school feel uneasy about a policy shift in the most crucial academic year for the college-bound. The removal of effort and work habits from a semester grade has them feeling especially uneasy. Like Lien at Churchill, her classmate Jason Chen, class treasurer, isn’t happy to be a specimen in the grand experiment. “It kind of irks a lot of people, because suddenly they change the entire system on you when you’re in the biggest year of high school,” Chen said.

Reaction from both teachers and students ranged from confused to upset, said Sherer. “Most teachers seem to be less than satisfied with it,” said Sherer. “Students, on the other hand, seem to completely hate it.”

“Most students are definitely not in favor of it,” Luse agreed.

TOP STUDENTS HAVE little to worry about, said Mike Carroll (no relation to Kathlyn Carroll at Whitman), who heads Churchill’s social studies department. “I don’t care what the system is,” Carroll said. “My feeling is that the ‘A’ student is going to be an ‘A’ student is going to be an ‘A’ student.”

Mike Carroll is Churchill’s head of staff development, leading the school’s teachers in implementing the new system. It’s a tough sell, he admits, and most of his colleagues aren’t happy about it. Carroll, however, believes the policy will be a change for the better. “The unfortunate thing is that the focus is on the calculating of a student’s grade,” he said. “It’s a whole practice that helps a student learn.”

Doran agrees that the county’s struggling students will benefit from the policy. “We’re not talking about kids who are already doing well, we’re talking about kids who have not met standards,” Doran said.

Kathlyn Carroll at Whitman said she understands the feelings of the higher-achieving students, but says the system was broken for students who weren’t academically performing. “For the kids who are really struggling, I think the new grading will be a positive,” she said.

“I KNOW THEY’RE CONCERNED about the kids at the bottom, but my concern is the kids at the top will be affected,” said Laura Siegel, vice president of Churchill’s PTSA. “I’m really concerned with the juniors and seniors, because I think that we could end up seeing a drop in GPA.”

As head of the county PTSA’s Grading and Reporting Committee, Siegel said she received e-mails and telephone calls from other concerned Churchill parents. Many feel like the communication about specifics has not been clear, Siegel said. She has received mixed impressions from different departments about whether or not participation and effort will factor into students’ grades this year. “It’s our children who will bear the brunt of it, although no intentional harm is mean to them,” Siegel said.

Sharon Bourke, who led Churchill’s PTSA through last year and was also part of the county PTSA’s Grading and Reporting Committee, believes the grading system is potentially beneficial. “The philosophy behind it, I think, is actually beneficial,” she said. “We can’t look at grades as a reflection of how good or bad the kid is. … We can’t inflate because they’re wonderfully cooperative, although we need to encourage that kind of behavior.”

The problem, Bourke believes, is in the implementation. “It’s like Microsoft when they release a new program,” Bourke said. “The first year, it’s just bugs, bugs, bugs.”

Bourke hopes to see Churchill and other pilot schools state concretely what methods they are or aren’t implementing. “There has to be something written down… that we can refer to,” Bourke said.

MANY CONCERNS are the inevitable result of a large-scale change in policy, Mike Carroll believes. “Change doesn’t happen easily,” he said.

Students are getting their first examples of how they will be impacted by their schools’ policies. At Churchill, one of Lien’s teachers described a 16-point grading system for a test, and Lien concluded that getting a high grade under the system was likely to be easier than getting an ‘A’ under the old system. “We’re not really sure how it’s going to affect us, but we’ll just have to see how it goes,” Lien said. “I don’t even know – it might be easier for us.”

Sherer, her classmate, was less optimistic about how things will stand at the end of the semester. “We could have 500 to 600 angry, angry sets of parents,” he said.

After all the debate and argument on the policy’s merits, the new policy is destined to be implemented county-wide, Carroll said. “People may be hoping it’s going to go away, but my feeling is that the county has too much invested in it,” said Carroll.

POLICY HIGHLIGHTS

Montgomery County Public Schools begin implementing a “standards based” grading and reporting system this year. Elementary and middle schools must implement the policy this year, while high schools are not required to do so until the 2005-06 academic year. However, many county high schools, including Churchill, Whitman and Wootton, are voluntarily implementing portions of the policy this year.

In implementing a standards based policy, the county schools hope to create county-wide standards for student grades that will be consistent from one school to the next, grades which evaluate a student’s mastery of previously stated concepts and standards.

Elements of the new system include the following:

* Student effort/homework — Students will receive an evaluation for effort/learning skills that is reported separately from the student achievement grade. Teachers may grade homework assignments if they previously informed the students they would be graded — all homework assignments must be labeled in advance as “practice” homework or evaluated homework. Mere completion of homework (along with effort or attendance) may not be factored into a student’s achievement grade. Neither may extra credit or bonus points. In short: No more “‘A’ for effort.”

* Late work — Teachers will assign both a “due date” and a “deadline” for student assignments. A due date is when the student is expected to complete an assignment, while the deadline is the last date a teacher will accept the assignment. Students who complete the assignment after the due date but before the deadline may be penalized no more than one letter grade. Wootton and Whitman are implementing this procedure this year. In short: A “better late than never” approach.

* 50 percent basement — A student may receive no lower than 50 percent as a grade on any test or assignment. The overall policy is intended to give students additional opportunities to re-learn concepts and demonstrate mastery of a subject, even if a student performs poorly on a test partway through the semester. Churchill and Whitman are implementing this policy this year. In short: A student can still flunk a test (receiving an “E” letter grade for a 50-59 performance), but sub-50 performances on tests or assignments won’t further drag down a semester grade.