Politics & Government

Grades can’t be punitive. But cheating can lower your grade. Is Wake’s policy inconsistent?

The Wake County school board is considering a new policy on student cheating.
The Wake County school board is considering a new policy on student cheating.

Wake County school leaders are wrestling with how they can allow schools to lower grades for cheating when they’re also telling teachers not to be punitive in how they grade students.

The school board is reviewing a new Honor Code policy that says schools can reduce the grades of students whose cheating helped raise their academic performance. But some school board members say that allowing that punishment is inconsistent with an existing board policy on grading that says “grading practices should not be punitive in nature.”

“We’re saying that grades are going to be used as part of discipline for cheating, and the grading policy says grades are not punitive,” school board member Christine Kushner said at last week’s work session. “We have to reconcile those two statements because they’re not reconciled as written or as proposed.”

The concerns raised caused the board to hold off last week on giving initial approval to the new Honor Code policy. The goal is to get a new policy adopted before the end of June so that it can be in place for next school year.

Wake has found itself returning to a long-running debate about how grading should be handled. Some educators think grades should reflect only whether students know the material. But others say grades can be lowered because of a student’s conduct.

When school administrators proposed banning giving zeros as grades in 2013, it produced a backlash among teachers. In lieu of banning zeros, the school board adopted a policy saying grading shouldn’t be punitive and that schools must develop a way to allow students who are at risk of failing to make up the work.

According to district directives, “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).”

Wake’s new Honors Code would allow schools to impose “academic consequences” for cheating. But the initial wording of the new policy also said that all students who are caught cheating must be given a chance to make up the work to avoid failing.

At last week’s work session, school board chairman Jim Martin proposed a compromise in which students who commit serious cases of cheating, such as stealing an exam, would not be eligible for getting any credit. But he proposed that in most cases students would be able to make up the work to get partial credit.

“You cheated, now go back and do the work without cheating,” Martin said.

Martin said that it would not be inconsistent to lower the grade for cheating while saying grading can’t be punitive. He said it’s a question of nuance.

“Grades are not appropriate to be used as the discipline,” Martin said. “But the discipline may impact your grade.”

But other board members said that parents wouldn’t see it that way. instead, they’d point back to the grading policy’s wording on not being punitive.

School board member Monika Johnson-Hostler said having the inconsistent language in the two policies will perpetuate the problem of grading inconsistency in Wake.

“If we’re saying that grades can’t be punitive, we’re right back to half the schools are doing different things because ultimately we already know that when we change policy, people in buildings don’t change because we changed the policy,” Johnson-Hostler said. “In our minds that’s what happens, but it is not so.

“If teachers are in that building and this is the way I’ve been handling this Honor Code issue in my class, I’m not changing it because your policy changed.”

The board will resume discussion of the Honor Code policy next week.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.