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After Grading Shift, Montgomery Still Adjusting

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 21, 2005; Page B02

Attendance never had been quite this good at Walter Johnson High School's PTA meetings. But in the fall, the monthly gatherings at the Bethesda campus began attracting about 100 people -- almost five times the usual number.

The reason was simple: This school year, Walter Johnson became one of two high schools in Montgomery County to begin grading its students using a system that emphasized academic achievement over participation. It also began to frown on giving students extra credit for such nonacademic pursuits as covering their books or bringing in canned goods for the annual holiday food drive.


Class participation, including that in Steve Miller's Advanced Placement U.S. Government and Politics course for ninth- graders, no longer factors in the grading at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda. (Michael Robinson-chavez -- The Washington Post)

With the reports for the third marking period due out today, Montgomery school officials are continuing efforts to win over skeptics.

The changes are part of an overall effort to make grades in the 140,000-student system a better measure of academic -- and only academic -- achievement, and they put Montgomery at the forefront of a handful of school systems nationwide that are trying to change the way they teach and test students. While many of the systems have established new standards and testing, few have changed the way they grade.

But the changes also represent a seismic shift in people's perceptions of what grades mean.

Under a standards-based system, such as the one in place in Montgomery, the goal is to boost achievement by raising expectations for all students. Youths are evaluated on how they measure up to a set of absolute standards, rather than being graded on how their achievement compared with that of their classmates.

For example, a student is given a top score for mastering all of the multiplication table, not just for knowing more of it than classmates.

Associate Superintendent Dale Fulton said that under the old methods, there was too much inconsistency in grading across the system. What constituted "A" level work at one campus might rate a "C" at another. The new policy laid out by the Board of Education aims to prevent that.

At Walter Johnson, parents were all for meaningful grades, but under the new system, they weren't quite sure what that meant. Yes, they bought into the policy in a global "It's good for the kids" sense, but it was the details -- the nitty-gritty -- that they needed to see and understand. For example, if class participation no longer counted as part of a student's grade, did that mean foreign-language teachers couldn't evaluate students on how well they spoke the language?

The school had few models to emulate, so teachers, parents and students worked together to fill in the blanks.

"At first, implementation was a little rough,'' said Christopher Garran, Walter Johnson's acting principal. "Fortunately, the staff here, the parents and students were pretty honest.''

In some cases, brutally honest.

In response to community concern in early 2004, Montgomery school trustees offered schools a reprieve, voting to delay implementation of the revised grading policy they approved in March 2003. Instead of implementing the changes all at once, it would roll out the changes over five years, the board concluded.

But at two high schools, Walter Johnson and Seneca Valley in Germantown, staff members said they wanted to push forward. They had invested too many hours in training teachers, and they didn't want to lose momentum.

Looking back, PTA President John Moriarty, who has two daughters at Walter Johnson, said he should have anticipated the confused reaction from parents and students. "It made sense what they were trying to do," he said of the changes. "Of course, that's not to say that folks were completely thrilled."

Moriarty said that after a difficult first semester, he thinks that the Walter Johnson community had worked through some of the more vexing issues. In a sign that things have settled down a bit, Moriarty noted that attendance at monthly PTA meetings has dropped to levels mirroring those before the grading and reporting changes.

"People are more comfortable with it,'' Moriarty said. "It was a hotter topic at the beginning of the year. But whether they're more familiar with it or resigned to it, the level of interest has dropped."


© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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