The Prince George's County School administration has mandated a new grading policy that - according to scores of angry teachers - sharply reduces their ability to fail students who have performed unsatisfactorily.
The new grading policy, which will take effect next week at the close of the first semester, comes at a time when many educators and parents are concerned over what they see as a loosening of grade standards for secondary school students.
"This bows a hole through the entire back-to-fundamentals posture," said Dan Coughlin, a biology teacher at DuVal Senior High in Lanham. "It seems totally incongruous with what the school board and administration claim they have been working to achieve."
The new policy changes grading procedures in two ways. It prohibits teachers from using class attendance as a factor in grading and eliminates the practice of giving greater weight or importance to the final quarter or semester of course work.
Here are a few examples. In previous years, if a student received an "A" for one quarter of work and an "E" (Prince George's equivalent of an "F") for the second quarter, the final grade would have been an "E." Under the new guidelines the student would receive a "C."
In a more extreme example, a student who through the course of four quarters in one class received a "B" the first quarter and three subsequent "E's" would have failed under the old guidelines. The new standards would give that student a "D."
"What this means," said Gail Alwine, a teacher at Bladensburg Senior High, "is that I could have a student who passed the first quarter and did absolutely nothing, not even attend classes, for the rest of the year, and I wouldn't be able to flunk him. That is ridiculous."
Feeney and his deputies in the school administration refused to comment on the rationale for the new policy. "We just implemented what the school board directed us to," said Deputy Supt. Alan Chotiner. "The board sets the policy, we follow it."
School board chairman Norman Saunders , a firm believer in the back-to-basics movement, said he was "not that well briefed" on the grading policy.
"If there is confusion about it or we inadvertently passed a policy that was not our intention, it would not embarrass me one bit to say I'm sorry," said Saunders. "I feel I have an awful lot to learn about education and policy setting."
Susan Bieniasz, the board's vice chairman, was more vocal in her support of the changes. She said they were brought about because of the board's dissatisfaction with the old practices of penalizing students for missing classes and for doing less work in the latter stages of a course.
"A lot of us just don't like the mixing of academics and discipline," said Bieniasz."That's why we eliminated the attendance requirements. As for the weighted grades, we felt it was fairer to average them out.
"As a matter of fact, one reason we pushed for the change is because we saw some students who would relax during the first part of a course and then go to work at the end, knowing that's what counted. If the exact opposite takes place under the new policy, that's unfortunate."
Bieniasz pointed out that a task force of teachers and administrators is working on a new grading policy for next year. "That is just an interim way of doing it," she said. "We know what we didn't like, now the task force will have to come up with something better."
The teacher and their two unions - the Prince George's County Educators Association and Prince George's Federation of Teachers - would like the policy to be changed before next year.
"It's shocking, what they are doing," said Toby Rich, president of the PGCEA. "It's going to create disruption in the classrooms."
Coughlin, a leader of the less powerful federation, said his group has distributed a series of petitions around the country's high schools and will present them to the school board next Thursday.
"Every time you pick up the paper you read about how teachers are not doing their jobs, about how they're responsible for the poor test scores and the illiterate high school graduates. We're not responsible for this one. No way."
Ron Alwine, a teacher at Parkdale Senior High accused the school administration of changing the grading policy to save face. "They're desperately looking for ways to cope with the large number of failures in the school system," said Alwine. "They would never admit it, but that's the reason for this."
"That's not my concern at all," responded Bieniasz. "My concern was with the flaws in the old system. If we have to have the teachers screaming at us at his point to change the system, I'll accept that."
Bieniasz pointed out that the new policy still allows teachers to stray they obtain the approval of the school principal. This would require the teachers to average the grades themselves rather than send them to the computer, which does the grade work for most teachers.
"That's why this new policy doesn't effect me much one way or the other," said Tom Davis, a teacher at Bladensburg Senior High. "I've often ignored the computer and made my own grades. That's the way I think it should be done. I know I'm in a minority on this one, but it really won't bother me."
The current task force on grade policy in Prince George's is the third one the county school board has created in recent years in its attempt to handle an issue that is both delicate and controversial.
The range of viewpoints on the task forces - as well as on the school board - has been great, from those who believe letter grades should be dropped entirely to those who believe the standards should be as strict and unyielding as possible.
Many teachers said they were taken by surprise by the new policy because they had assumed that the Prince George's school board was on the conservative, fundamentalist side of the issue. "This action just doesn't fit," said one teacher.