Wake County school leaders listening to teacher concerns about grading changes

Posted by T. Keung Hui on November 15, 2013 

It looks like you can score one for the teachers in the battle over how the Wake County school system should revise its grading practices.

As noted in today’s article, the backlash from teachers caused school administrators to pull from consideration guidelines that would have set 50 as the minimum grade for missing work and would have capped the penalty for missing work at 10 percent of the grade. Teachers let school board members and administrators know they didn’t like changes such as banning zeros.

Click here for the proposal that the board reviewed Oct. 29. Click here for the revised proposal presented Thursday at the joint meeting of the board’s policy and student achievement committees.

After lengthy complaints Thursday from board members about how teachers weren’t happy with the changes, click here for the new proposal that staff unveiled late in the meeting. The language is softer.

For instance, it says schools should set up a zero-recovery plan but doesn’t ban zeros. It leaves it up each school to set the penalty for missing work.

Also, only the teacher and not the student can determine whether a retest is needed that would allow for a higher grade.

While the prior staff version would have called for consistency across all 170 schools, this new R&P calls for having consistency within schools on grading.

The direction things would go were set at the beginning of the discussion when board member Jim Martin thanked the public for providing so much feedback about the grading changes.

When it got to the hotly contested sections of the R&P, Todd Wirt, assistant superintendent for academics, sad they had gotten a lot of feedback from the workforce, especially on not giving zeros. He asked the board members for their feedback.

Board member Susan Evans started it off by saying she had received lots of feedback, including emails from teachers. Evans said she contemplated what she would say over the past two weeks and that she realizes that what was proposed by staff was done with “the best of intentions.”

But Evans said “they’re nowhere near close to having a consensus” on the issue.

“I’m really feeling and hearing from our teachers that they’re bombarded from every direction – and not just from Wake County,” Evans said. “They feel a loss of autonomy. They’re not being treated as professionals.”

“This would be a very dangerous time to force one more thing on our teachers that would tie their hands in a number of different ways,” Evans also said.

Evans said she’d support pushing out the R&P as guidelines to schools for their professional learning teams to work through. But she said she can’t support major changes in the grading practices unless teachers’ voices have been heard.

“I don’t think it’s the right time for us to make it seem to them like they don’t have the common sense to help students recover,” Evans said.

Board chairman Keith Sutton asked how they can better empower teachers. He asked about changing the wording from shall to may or could.

“I certainly get the need for consistency when you have 171 schools,” Sutton said. “We’ve got to find the way to improve that.”

Board member Bill Fletcher said he was sensitive to the reasons why staff wanted to change the grading practices. But Fletcher said he was also sensitive to the message that it sends to the community in terms of standards and how it’s being perceived as a lowering of expectations and standards.

Fletcher said he recognizes the need to help students with recovery opportunities but wasn’t ready to support the R&P from staff as the right way to achieve that.

Board member Tom Benton said he very much agreed with Evans said about the lack of consensus.

“Unless we can get closer to some kind of consensus, we have to be more deliberate about this,” Benton said.

Benton also complained about what he said was the media portraying they were going to adopt the proposal Thursday or very soon. Administrators have said they’d want the proposal adopted by early next year so they could begin training teachers for next school year.

Benton said they can’t write a policy that does anything more than to instruct schools to have discussions about grading and have them publish their guidelines so that parents will know what they are.

Benton also reiterated his concern for the need for a recovery mechanism.

“How can students who makes a horrendous mistake during a quarter have some road for digging themselves out of that situation?” Benton said.

Benton said that with the block schedule it’s harder to recover from a bad quarter. He said they can’t have kids sitting in a class for a whole quarter with no chance of recovering. He said they need to encourage schools to have that kind of discussion

Benton said he’d like the district to establish some kind of online tool or wiki where teachers can discuss the issue.

Evans added that before they take on something as important as this they’ve got to get buy-in from teachers and that’s what they’ve not had so far.

Martin then brought up the grading policy used in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro school system, which reads that “the district's grading guidelines prohibit teachers from using grading practices that are punitive in nature or which make it difficult, if not impossible, to recover from isolated incidents of non-compliance (e.g. a missed homework assignment or one low grade on a test during a marking period).” The policy also says that “grading practices in the district will not be based on factors not directly connected to the learning objectives, but will reflect accurately students' academic mastery of their coursework.”

Martin said the Chapel Hill policy captured a lot of what they want to do in Wake.

Martin added that one zero or a couple of zeros is not something you can’t dig yourseslf out of to pass. He added that some students need to get a zero as a motivator to get a kick in the you know what.

At this point, staff reported back on the poll of school grading practices requested by Benton.

Of Wake’s 32 middle schools, seven prohibit giving zeros on individual assignments. Eight schools don’t prohibit zeros, but when grades are calcuated each quarter they use a higher figure such as a 50 or 60 for the average

The other 17 middle schools don’t have school-wide policies on zeros. But individual professional learning teams in each school might.

Among high schools, 20 don’t have a school-wide plan. But individual PLTs might.

Nine high schools have plans of varying degree dealing with things like zero recovery and late and missing work. But only one prohibits zeros.

Benton asked who had requested the discussion on having consistent grading policies. Ruth Steidinger, senior director of academic programming and support, answered the middle school and high school principals had asked for the discussion four years ago.

Wirt said it’s staff’s sense that principals would like consistent guidance on how to proceed.

It was at this point that Wirt pulled out the new R&P, saying that staff had anticipated that discussion would go this way.

Wirt described the language in the latest version as being much looser and designed to help get consistency within school buildings. He said it represents what’s best for kids while respecting the professionalism of teachers.

Moore added that it’s a shift in where they’re going. She said that with so many new secondary school principals over the past four years they wanted to run the changes by them.

Moore pointed to the emails they had gotten and how even people who they’ve bumped into have been questioning the grading changes.

Martin said the new version seemed to address many of the concerns they had.

Wirt said the plan now is to present it at a Dec. 5 principals meeting. It will then go to the policy committee on Dec. 10 for more discussion. But staff said they’re not expecting action at that meeting.

“This has to be a thought-out process,” Moore said.

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