A renewed plea for grading reform

Oct. 11, 2005, midnight | By John Silberholz | 15 years, 3 months ago

Last year, the Montgomery County Board of Education (BOE) implemented a new grading policy in all middle and elementary schools allowing students to retake assignments that were not tests or projects and forbidding teachers from grading work for completion. An improved version of this policy has been employed in high schools countywide this year, fixing many of last year's problems. Still, the BOE must continue with reforms.

Two years ago, there were no restrictions preventing MCPS teachers from basing grades on work assessed for completion, meaning that a student who turned in, but failed, every assignment could still pass the course. MCPS was forced to intervene to fix this problem.

Last year's policy provided the county with much-needed consistency. Previously, grading varied not only by school, but also by teacher within each school. By standardizing assessment procedures, the county has worked to diminish discrepancies between schools and individual teachers.

This year's revised policy also addresses criticisms of last year's implementation. The most prominent arguments against the earlier policy concerned homework assessment. Last year's plan to make homework fair was to remove all possible credit for assignments that did not test mastery.

However, this plan had a major flaw: Students had no incentive to complete ungraded work. When students do not complete homework, teachers are either forced to waste time re-teaching material, penalizing those who did their work, or continue class, hurting those who didn't.

By counting work assessed for completion as 10 percent of the class grade, this year's guidelines compel students to do their assigned homework and show understanding of objectives on tests and quizzes, improving both student participation and performance.

This year's new grading policy also demonstrates an improved grade reporting system. Last year, many students received either a four, three, two, one or zero for an individual assignment, corresponding to an A, B, C, D or E. This plan allowed for "grade compression," wherein a large range of scores are collapsed into one single notation. The difference between an 89 percent and 80 percent is vast; the former is almost an A, while the latter nearly qualifies as a C. Under last year's grading policy, both would have been regarded as the exact same grade for an assignment. The revised policy calls for all assignments to be graded with points, a more accurate representation of student performance.

While the BOE has greatly improved last year's grading policy, it must implement still more changes to further develop the plan. First, the BOE must remove the rule guaranteeing students at least a 50 percent on any assignment on which they meet a "minimum standard" as defined by the teacher. No student deserves credit for work not done, and giving a pupil unearned points conflicts with the policy's basic idea that grades should reflect mastery of a subject.

The BOE needs to change grading procedures as well. Complaints have arisen across academic departments that students have abused the system by reassessing assignments on which they received nearly perfect grades. This defeats the purpose of retesting; already qualified students don't need reteaching. A policy in which only assignments under a certain cutoff would qualify for reassessment could avoid this nuisance.

Finally, to continue combating grade compression, the county must convert report card grades from letter grades to percentages. While this change may at first seem radical, almost 10 percent of schools nationwide have adopted unconventional grading systems, according to a College Board survey. Percentage grades reflect a student's performance better than letter grades and motivate pupils to try their hardest in all classes, as even the smallest improvement in performance causes a visible increase in a student's final grade.

Though the county has done well with its improvements to the old grading policy, much more work is needed until MCPS can truly realize its goal of creating a completely consistent grading policy that is reasonable for students.

Tell MCPS what you think about the revised grading policy. E-mail MCPS Director of Curriculum Betsy Brown at Betsy_Brown@mcpsmd.org.

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John Silberholz. The Chips PRODMAN (and editoral board member), John enjoys basketball, tennis and biking, looks forward to yet another year on Chips. Among other things, he enjoys climbing trees (even though he has a weird tendancy of falling off of them), biking like crazy, playing basketball, … More »

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