Wake school panel backs letter grades for elementary schools

Wake could return to letter grades on report cards for students in third- through fifth-grade

khui@newsobserver.comMay 11, 2012 

— A Wake County school board committee gave the thumbs-up Thursday to returning to letter grades for older elementary school students. But the panel took no action on proposals that would eliminate classroom behavior from being counted in a student’s academic grades.

In an informal vote, the school board’s student achievement committee agreed to recommend using A through F letter grades on report cards for third, fourth and fifth grades. If approved by the full board, it would replace a numerical 1-4 grading system that some elementary school parents have found to be confusing.

“What do the numbers mean?” said school board member John Tedesco. “People don’t understand them.”

In 2004, every Wake elementary school switched to a report card in which 4 was the highest score and 1 was the lowest one. School officials said the change from letter grades would allow teachers and parents to better know how students were doing on mastering the state curriculum.

But one of the repeated complaints over the years is that teachers give out few 4 grades. Ruth Steidinger, Wake’s senior director of middle school programs, said the district could have done a better job of explaining to teachers when they should give a 4. A grade of 3* also was used, to signify a grade better than a 3 but not as good as a 4. That added to parental confusion.

Supporters say the change will better prepare older elementary students for the transition to the letter grades that are used on report cards in middle school and high school.

The committee backed using a 10-point grading scale for elementary schools, where an A would be a 90 to 100. That’s different from middle schools and high schools, where an A equals 93 to 100.

The partial return to letter grades in elementary school was proposed by school board member Deborah Prickett.

Other grading changes were proposed by staff members Thursday, but they were not acted on. The proposals include:

• Grading middle school and high school classroom behavior such as work habits and conduct in a new, separate grade instead of the academic grade.

• Reducing how much homework is counted for the academic grade.

• Prohibiting K-12 teachers from handing out extra credit.

• Requiring teachers to allow students to have up to five days to hand in late assignments, with the penalty capped at 10 percent of the grade.

• Requiring teachers to allow students to redo assignments and tests that can replace the original grade.

The changes are the result of three years of work done by a school system committee that’s been reviewing Wake’s grading practices. The proposals stalled before the prior school board, but administrators are renewing the pitch to the new board.

More consistency

Steidinger said the changes would lead to consistent grading practices at schools and not result in a situation where grades might hinge on students getting extra credit for bringing tissues or other supplies to class or whether the teacher feels a child is a “bad kid.”

“I want to know if that A means they mastered the content, not that it means they’re a compliant child,” Steidinger said.

Tedesco backed the changes, questioning the fairness of giving a C grade to a student who might miss some assignments but still gets an A on all his exams.

“We need to know that the grade of C or D means he needs extra help,” Tedesco said.

School board member Jim Martin said he agrees that a student shouldn’t be penalized for being fidgety in class or get rewarded for bringing a teacher an apple. But he questioned whether Wake may go too far in separating all classroom behavior from the academic grade.

“Cutting up in class or sassing another student means one thing,” Martin said. “Not doing your assignment means something else.”

Under review

The board will continue to review the proposed changes.

The grading debate takes place following a cheating scandal at Panther Creek High School in Cary, where five students who were caught cheating on an exam were allowed to retake an alternative exam. Board members said they want to spend more time discussing how to handle cheating.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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