A Two-Mark System

Grades should definitely reflect mastery of the subject, as objectively as possible; yet there are factors that should be included to show what kind of overall job the student is doing. The obvious answer is to give more than one grade per subject. I am sure this has been suggested by someone; I just wonder why it has not been adopted.

Some 60 years ago, when I was in school, we received two grades (designated by H, S-plus, S, S-minus, and U) per subject: one for subject mastery, and one for attitude. This seemed to work pretty well to show the student's progress (along with a few sentences by the teacher, perhaps -- particularly in the lower grades -- to supplement the letter grades).

This two-grade system is also useful for nonacademic subjects, such as art or physical education, where inherent talent is a somewhat inescapable part of the mastery grade. (The child lacking that talent could still get a more positive grade, since his effort would be shown by the attitude grade.)

This grading system also offers a more appropriate measure for a child who knows the subject, but just isn't in school very often. (I have never felt it was fair to lower a grade strictly on nonattendance.)

As for increasing the weight of high school final exams from 25 percent to 30 percent of the course grade, I cannot see why that would make a significant difference for students or teachers.

The appropriate fraction for the final exam for each course should depend on the organization of the course, and how the various grading elements (homework, quizzes, etc.) fit together to be able to measure mastery of the subject. The final exam fraction need not be the same for all.

Nancy R. Turner

Gaithersburg

High Stakes Hurt Students

We strenuously oppose Montgomery County's current obsession with high-stakes testing, particularly the platform of the proposed grading policy, which increases the weight of high school exams from 25 percent to 30 percent of the course grade. Here's why:

Mastery of the course material does not equal performing well on a test, especially not a test covering months of material. Memory and fact recall, learning style, test anxiety and physical health on the day of the exam all factor into the equation. However, the increased dependence on cumulative, paper-pencil testing favors those who memorize easily and take tests well. Moreover, increasing the weight of the exam devalues other ways of showing mastery, such as class discussion, lower-pressure quizzes, projects and essays.

Increasing the weight of the exam means that teachers and students will focus more intensely on the material on the test. Researchers have found that in this setting, "students become less intrinsically motivated to learn and less likely to engage in critical thinking."

Further, "when stakes get high, teachers no longer encourage students to explore the concepts and subjects that interest them." This translates into a narrow range of material, disengaged students and auto-pilot teachers.

Students may do better on semester exams and high school assessments but they won't improve on the test that counts: the SAT. Researchers found that in states that rely on high-stakes testing, about half the SAT scores go down and the others go up, yielding no overall improvement on SAT scores. ACT assessment tests, also very important for college admissions, actually show decreases in scores after high school graduation exams are instituted. Scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, another neutral measure, were lower among states with high-stakes testing. These trends are most likely because students learn a more limited curriculum in order to score well on arbitrary, state-imposed tests.

Marginal students choose to drop out when they perceive they will not pass exams. Researchers have documented increased dropout rates in states with mandatory exams for high school diplomas.

Furthermore, students in the bottom quintile of performance drop out at a significantly increased rate when compared with students in states that allow class performance to determine eligibility for a diploma.

We understand that there are legitimate reasons to believe that semester exams should have more weight. However, the negative effects of our increasing reliance on exams far outweigh the potential gains of the proposed policy. There must be better solutions than testing the life out of our once innovative educational system and our increasingly stressed students.

Joan Wittan Schiffman

North Potomac

Susan Wittan Crow

Rockville