Grading policy aids accountability

April 22, 2004, midnight | By Anna Schoenfelder | 16 years, 9 months ago

New MCPS policy will accurately reflect a student's real knowledge

The MCPS Board of Education (BOE) voted on Jan. 13 to implement a new grading policy to make course grades more objective. The new policy specifically eliminates curves and homework graded for completeness, which for years have inflated course grades for students at Blair and across the county. If it is effective, the policy will make course grades a more accurate reflection of students' poor exam scores.

Teachers curve and manipulate grades for reasons which are generally well-meaning and accepted. For example, a teacher may use extra credit as a balance for a particularly difficult test. Or, an easy A on a homework assignment graded for completion, not accuracy, could boost a student's dismal test score percentage. This type of grade support, which rewards effort and attendance, made it possible for many Blair math students to flunk the exam and receive a final grade of B or C in the class, hardly indicative of their understanding of the subject.

Physics teacher Karen Hillmer says she has noticed many teachers giving fluff points in math and science classes. "I'm not doing that. At the same time, I'm getting a lot of flak for holding the line," Hillmer says. Meanwhile, says Hillmer, math skills have deteriorated to the point where some physics students are baffled by simple algebra. Hillmer attributes this to some math teachers' emphasis on effort on various projects rather than test scores. The new policy will give much-needed support to teachers who hold students accountable for having a solid understanding of the curriculum.

Math teacher Julie Greenberg says that grade inflation is due in part to "philosophical differences" between teachers. Some students try hard in math, but it becomes clear to the teacher that they won't pass the exam. This is due in large part, says Greenberg, to social promotion, an unofficial policy that passes struggling students in basic elementary- and middle- school courses, making them shaky at best in most subjects and downright lost in math. Social promotion reflects a strong desire by teachers, administrators and parents to keep kids "on track" and on grade level. However, grades lose their meaning when teachers make it their goal to maintain a high class GPA. "Some teachers say, ‘What if a student is trying really hard and still fails?' That is a problem. It is not solved by distorting grades," Greenberg says.

Social promotion is especially destructive in math classes, where success in each class depends heavily on a basic understanding of previous math classes. By the time students are failing Algebra II, Greenberg says, it's too late, due to the cumulative nature of math.

Senior Esey Kidane admits that he got consistent A's and B's in his math classes throughout high school while getting D's and E's on his math exams. Kidane is not aloneæ40 percent of non-magnet Blazers failed their first semester math exams last year. While some students blame the failure on badly written tests, Greenberg says that she has, in fact, never seen a failure that can be attributed to a misaligned test. "If you can't get a respectable score on an exam then you have been cheated," Greenberg says.

The recently approved grading policy will, if nothing else, expose the scanty knowledge the average student has on core academic subjects. Without curves, extra credit or homework graded for completion, students will no longer be able to scrape by by acing that end-of-semester math "art project." At best, the policy will force students to understand the basic objectives and have a solid foothold on the exam in order to make good grades.

In effect, the new grading policy is based more purely on what students know, rather than on how hard they have worked. With the policy, the Board may be able to end the pattern of social promotion and restore substance and objectivity to high-school grades. The change will not be easyæthe BOE already faces outrage from students and parents over the policy. However bleak the outlook may be, MCPS is right to accurately show how much of the curriculum kids really understand when they leave a class.

Anna Schoenfelder. 04 real. Anna is a j-j-j-junior in CAP. She has a litterbox and it is very green. Her favorite activities include spinning, agitating, and mincing. She feels very prickly about the stirrup that she owns. She hopes one day to taste very good, and perhaps … More »

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