Debating changing Wake County’s grading policies

10/30/2013 6:00 AM

10/29/2013 9:09 PM

It looks like major grading changes could be coming to the Wake County school system as soon as the 2014-15 school year.

That was the gist of a pretty intense discussion at Tuesday’s school board policy committee meeting. As noted in today’s article, you could see zeros being banned, students allowed to hand in work late for credit and students being able to request retests to get higher grades.

The issue was last discussed more than a year ago. Based on how involved those discussions have been, administrators were expecting the same high level of interest on Tuesday.

“We expect this to be a good healthy dialogue,” said Todd Wirt, assistant superintendent for academics.

Click here for the latest version of the revised grading policy and R&P. Click here for the grading policy on the book. There’s currently no R&P.

School board member Tom Benton, who has only been on the board since earlier this year, asked for a brief history.

Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance, said the R&P “caused the more squirrelly stuff.”

Ruth Steidinger, senior director of academic programming and support, said section A2 on the policy about separating behavior from grades is what caused “consternation.”

Steidinger related how as part of the district’s review of grading they made teachers think about their grading policies, including having them look at Ken O’Connor’s “A Repair Kit for Grading: Fifteen Fixes For Broken Grades.”

School board member Jim Martin, chair of the policy committee, resumed the role he took in 2012 of being the most questioning of the policy changes. He questioned whether staff’s efforts to promote grading consistency could be accomplished through professional development as opposed to changing the grading policy.

John Williams, senior director of high school programs, voiced what would be a repeated theme on Tuesday about students not being able to recover from getting a grade of zero. He said the current policy, in which zeros are allowed, “permitted rivers of hopelessness in terms of how grading practices were applied.”

Benton said he’s been hearing about the inconsistency of grading practices in individual schools where some allow zeros and some don’t.

Martin said they could start by defining what the problem is that the policy hopes to resolve.

Moore said that the policy was rewritten because the sense was they needed to define the purpose of grading. She said within that is the system used and how the assessments are done.

Wirt said a key revision in the policy is that it talks about students having mastery of the content.

The big overarching change in the policy is the creation of a separate series of behavioral grades for middle school and high school students that would not be counted for the grade point average. The newly renamed “academic grades” used to determine GPA would not include “academic-related behaviors.”

Martin said the trick is differentiating what the “academic-related behaviors” are that would be not be reported in the academic grade.

James Overman, senior director of elementary school programs, said at the elementary school level they already break up grades with a separate one for conduct and work habits. The new policy would essentially do the same thing for middle school and high school students.

Martin said it’s a lot easier to break it up at elementary school than at the higher levels. He said Wake shouldn’t be using a one size fits all model.

“Turning in your work is frankly a behavior of your job that you need to do,” Martin said.

The discussion turned to the issues of missing work in R&P – where students can get credit for work handed in late – and what would be considered academic-related behaviors.

For instance, Martin said everyone can agree that a student who repeatedly taps a pencil in class, possibly due to ADHD, should not have that reflected in the academic grade. But he asked what are the other academic behaviors.

“Behavior is a word that means so many things,” Martin said. “What are we talking about?”

Benton asked if turning in work late is one of those behaviors.

Moore quipped that section has “a radar lock on” it due to all the attention it gets.

Martin related how he he’s currently trying to meet a deadline for a National Science Foundation grant as part of his work at N.C. State. He said if he misses the deadline he gets a zero for the year in funding.

Williams replied that the difference is the grading policy applies to children while what Martin brought up relates to adult behavior.

But Martin said that in the college classes he teaches at NCSU he tries to get students career ready, something that’s also stressed by the state now in K-12. Martin said career ready includes getting work in on time.

“I’m sorry Bob,” Martin said. “You missed that deadline so you won’t get that contract.”

Martin said that he’s completely with Williams on elementary schools students, but not those in high school.

Staff was asked why the R&P lists 10 percent and 30 percent as the maximum penalties for late work. Wirt said they haven’t decided yet on which one to use.

School board vice chairwoman Christine Kushner said that since the new policy is focused on mastery and sound work habits they need to make sure students are placed in the right classes. She said that makeup work should be expected so there’s no excuse for a zero.

But Martin asked what should you expect if the student just doesn’t want to do the work.

Board member Bill Fletcher said that at some point the responsibility for being on time shifts to the student.

Martin said he wants a zero recovery system instead of a blanket missing work policy. For instance, he said a student should get a zero if he’s part of a group project and doesn’t participate in the group and doesn’t show up for the school presentation.

But Superintendent Jim Merrill said there’s a difference between a zero and a failure. He said they should establish “a reasonableness of failure.” He said failure doesn’t have to be a zero.

“The zero knocks kids out of the box,” Merrill said. “That is the dropout path.”

Merrill said that maybe they can set the low at 50 because that would be recoverable. But Martin said he’s not comfortable with getting a 50 for not doing work.

Benton backed not giving a zero, saying it would be a major change.

“A power of a zero in a 100-point scale is a killer,” Benton said. “Our kids can’t recover from that.”

Benton then asked about A3 in the R&P that would allow a student to get a retest to get a higher grade. He asked if the R&P was opening it up for any student who doesn’t get a 100 or an A to ask for the chance.

Moore asked if that was a bad thing with Martin saying yes.

Benton, who used to be principal of Durant Road Middle School, said he didn’t allow it if the original score was higher than an 85.

Williams, the former principal of Middle Creek High School, said the cut-off at his school was 70.

Moore said that they could set it up so that you could recover half the points you missed.

Williams asked if it should be a school-based decision to drop zeros.

Martin said he would be happy for a zero to be eliminated for a students who tried to make up the work.

In terms of the minimum score, Wirt said that they had discussed at Monday’s superintendent leadership team meeting setting 50 as the minimum grade until the students complete the work. He said this would send a message that the student is expected to turn the work in.

Martin said he’d be more comfortable wth using an “I” incomplete grade instead of a 50. He said the I grades would trigger a conversation with the family of the student about getting the incomplete grades removed.

Moore replied that it’s problematic under the new PowerSchool system because an I is treated as an F which counts against things such as a student getting a driver’s license.

Williams pointed to how minimum scores do exist in other areas, such as what the student gets just for showing up to take the SAT.

Benton asked staff to research every school to find out what the lowest score they give for report cards and assignments. He said that would help show what variances in grading exist in the district.

Benton also suggested that board members get a copy of O’Connor’s book, which he called excellent.

Martin still remained skeptical of giving 50s for students who don’t do work, saying not giving a zero protects a slacker.

“The problem with the whole not have a zero issue is you have to learn something,” Martin said

Benton asked for clarity on when staff wanted to implement the changes. Moore said in the 2014-15 school year.

Going forward, Martin said he wanted to raise his concern about homework being limited to 15 percent of the grade now that students are supposed to have more project-based assignments.

Looking at the elementary school grading system, now that 3* is being eliminated, Martin said he’s concerned that there’s nothing between proficient at 3 and exemplary at 4. He asked about possibly changing 2 from approaching proficiency to proficiency.

Martin also asked about reintroducing wording about extra credit in the R&P. Initially, staff wanted to ban all extra credit, citing how it was sometimes given for non-academic things such as bringing in tissues to class.

But after complaints from some board members, staff had compromised by saying that extra credit for academic matters would be permitted. However, there’s nothing on extra credit in the R&P presented Tuesday.

As the committee wrapped up discussion, Williams acknowledged that the proposed changes are “a deeply polarizing issue.”

“The innovative principals in the district have already done it,” Williams said. “The results show it is working. The ones who don’t want to be that bold are waiting for that policy.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily say bold is no zeros,” Martin replied, adding he hoped they could come up with a policy and R&P that wouldn’t be polarizing.

The issue will next be discussed Nov. 14 at a joint meeting of the policy committee and student achievement committee.


The WakeEd blog is devoted to discussing and answering questions about the major issues facing the Wake County school system. WakeEd is maintained by The News & Observer's Wake schools reporter, T. Keung Hui.

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