Teacher Raises Questions About Grading and Reporting Changes

Natalie Barnes is a math teacher at a Prince George’s County middle school. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

by Natalie Barnes

100_3373As a middle school math teacher, I wholeheartedly support some of the thirteen recommended changes to the grading and reporting policy. Teachers should provide a syllabus (recommendation #6), use approved grading systems (#12), and grade and return student work within ten school days (#9). Similarly, administers should ensure that grading is applied uniformly (#13). These seem to be teaching practices that are already common among quality educators.

Yet, there are some policies with which I disagree. Regarding behavior, attendance,and grades (#2 & #3), Gorman Brown explained during the June 9th Board of Education work session (at 40:35 in the video) that grading should be based on course standards. Yet, the mathematical standards include “use appropriate tools strategically”and “critique the reasoning of others” (Standards for Mathematical Practice). From a teacher’s perspective, if a student is throwing rulers across the room or refusing to participate in a lesson, they are failing these standards. During class discussions, Socratic seminars, or classwork in general, what grade should be given to students who do not participate appropriately? That said, a rubric or other more objective scale should be used to reduce subjectivity, but behavior is an important part of a student’s classwork. When asked about the role of participation in grading, Dr. Shawn Joseph responded that “participation is not part of our administrative procedure” (1:02:03) so it is unclear as to how this impacts behavior (1:03:14).

I also have concerns, as do many others, about the uniform minimum grade of a 50%
provided students put forth a good faith effort (#1 & #4). Even though “good faith effort” has been defined by the panel as “any assignment in which a student completes at least 50% of the required content,” this still leaves a great deal of room for subjectivity. As a math teacher, I have seen students write down random numbers and assume that this is quality work deserving of a 50%. Like Board member Ms. Perry (1:18:30), I wonder if only expecting students to turn in work half done is reinforcing good work ethic. Furthermore, I question, as does Board member Edward Burroughs (1:32:45), whether this practice actually prepares students for life beyond high school, including college. True, research shows this helps students avoid giving up. However, in my experience, it also enables students to put forth only a minimum effort.

Lastly, the policies for make-up work are of great concern to me (#3 & #10). I am supportive of make-up work and have my own procedures for it within my classroom. But I do not think a uniform sliding scale is appropriate for the entire county. Each classroom and subject area has different needs. Even within my own classroom, the policy for homework is different from that of projects and classwork. For example, I assign five equations to solve for homework, which are due the following school day; I walk around the room and check for completion. After assigning their completion grades, we review the problems as a class. Should students who did not do the homework be allowed to turn it in for a 95% just by copying down the work and turning it in that day? I think not.

The process of accepting make-up work also becomes challenging for the teacher to track. Students have ten school days to turn in make-up work, losing 5% each day. If a student is absent, they also have ten days to complete make-up work. But, according to the language in recommendation #10, this work must be submitted prior to the last day of the 2nd to last week of the quarter. I also teach students with IEPs, who may each have their own accommodations. This all becomes a nightmare to organize. When faced with this quandary, Gorman Brown said teachers will need to “lean into our discomfort” (44:05). While this is true, I wonder what time will be provided for teachers to complete all that is required: planning lessons, grading assignments, inputting the grades, providing constructive feedback, collaborating with other teachers, communicating with parents, etc.

There are other policies where I agree with the rationale, but hesitate regarding the implementation. For example, increased parental involvement through conferences is important (#5), but I wonder when these conferences will be held. Likewise, I feel that one assignment per week for high school and two for middle and elementary school is reasonable (#8). Yet, there have been times due to snow days, assemblies, PARCC testing, etc. where I have seen my class for only one or two sessions that week. A teacher must balance between the mandatory number of assignments and the creation of “token assignments” that are of little value to the grade, inputted solely to satisfy the policy.

Assessment is much more than a percentage, so it only follows that students should be given opportunities to improve their score (#7). But I wonder, who decides what a “qualifying assignment” is? As a teacher, I may not find a particular assessment appropriate for an additional opportunity, especially when we take into account Ms. Ava Perry’s concerns regarding cheating raised during the Q & A session (1:23:20). I would hate to see this policy used to force teachers to allow students to re-do assignments at the students’ and/or parents’ whims. Similarly, allowing teachers to change student grades based on improvement (#11) should be implemented carefully. “Improvement” is a vague term that can be interpreted differently by teachers, administrators, students, and parents. I appreciated Ramona Burton’s clarification during the question and answer session (1:25:49); the policy’s goal is to allow students to come forward and advocate for the change. This is the ideal as it encourages students to take responsibility for their grades, something they will need to do later in life. Yet, this still leaves a great deal open for interpretation. What one teacher and administrator decides is improvement may not be the same with another teacher or in another school.

In conclusion, I am supportive of the rationale behind many of these policies, but I am hesitant regarding the implementation of these ideas.

Read more:

Is it becoming too hard to fail? Schools are shifting toward no-zero grading policies,” Washington Post.

New grading system possibly coming to PGCPS,” The Sentinel Newspapers.

Proposed Changes to Grading and Reporting Policy,” Prince George’s County Advocates for Better Schools.

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