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Montgomery May Slow Phase-In of Grading Changes

Some Teachers, Parents Complain About Policy

By Rebecca Dana
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 11, 2004; Page B04

Complaints about a grading policy introduced this fall by the Montgomery County school district has prompted school board members to consider delaying further implementation next year.

The policy, intended to bring uniformity to grading, is now a requirement for teachers assessing elementary and middle school students. Although parents, students and teachers at those grade levels have endured adjustment pains, reaction generally has been positive, according to school district officials and a number of parents.


Patricia O'Neill - school board vice president. (Courtesy of Montgomery Schools)

But confusion has reigned at some high schools, where individual principals and teachers have tried on their own to use various aspects of the policy to prepare their students for next year.

"I don't think schools wanted to sit back and say, 'We'll just wait it out,' " said Michael Doran, principal of Thomas S. Wootton High School in Rockville, where teachers have picked up several elements of the new policy.

Only two high schools -- Walter Johnson in Bethesda and Seneca Valley in Germantown -- were supposed to test the system this year, in anticipation of it becoming a requirement at all high schools next year.

"The whole purpose was to create consistency," said Board of Education Vice President Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). "But instead of creating consistency, we've created chaos. And among parents of college-bound kids, we've created real concerns."

In response, high schools held community meetings. Parents began letter-writing campaigns. And teachers brought their frustrations to the school board.

Many have urged the board to scale back or reevaluate the policy.

"You have [high school] departments that say they are doing one thing, and teachers in those departments who are actually doing something else," said Deputy Superintendent Frieda Lacey. "Implementation is uneven. There is variance across the district. High schools were supposed to discuss this year, not implement."

The new grading system is designed to make students' grades reflect their understanding of the material, not whether they tried hard or behaved well in class. Homework is considered "practice" and is no longer graded. Extra credit is prohibited.

As a result, the number of A grades given out in the first marking period at Walter Johnson dropped, compared with the same period a year ago, and there was an increase in B and C grades.

Parents expressed concern that fewer A grades would hurt their children's chances of getting into selective colleges, said Christopher Garran, the acting principal of Walter Johnson. The school responded by drafting a letter to alert college admissions officers to the grading changes.

Meanwhile, the county teachers union surveyed teachers at 100 district schools. At an October school board meeting, Bonnie Cullison, the union president, presented the most common complaints. One is that as part of the new policy, teachers are required to reteach material for students who do poorly on a test and give them a new test.

Many teachers are unsure who qualifies for reassessment, and they are struggling to find the time to reteach whole units of instruction, the survey found.

Teachers also faulted a change that makes 50 percent the lowest percentage grade a student can get on a test or assignment, even if a student failed to hand in an assignment. It has been bad for motivation, teachers said.

Others blame the superintendent's office for not having effectively communicated all the elements of the new policy.

"We didn't provide the clarity that perhaps we needed to provide," Lacey said. "We're working on that now."

The school board originally adopted the grading policy in March 2003, planning to implement the changes countywide the following academic year. But after pleas from teachers and parents, the board decided to delay implementation.

The board then came up with a plan to roll out the changes over five years, integrating some aspects of the policy in elementary and middle schools for the 2004-2005 school year and delaying high schools an extra year.

At a recent meeting of the school board's policy committee, school officials suggested new options for phasing in the grading changes. Proposals included implementing the policy one grade level at a time, beginning with ninth grade next year; implementing a single element of the policy, such as reteaching, each year until school officials are more comfortable with it; or postponing implementation in high schools altogether for the 2005-2006 school year.

Board members said they anticipate voting on what to do after hearing a report from Superintendent Jerry D. Weast at a meeting early next year.


© 2004 The Washington Post Company


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