Final exams in high school, now worth 25 percent of a student's semester grade, may begin to count for 30 percent, as the Montgomery County Board of Education votes Monday on revising its grading policy. The board also will decide whether to eventually replace an attendance policy that denies credit to high schoolers with more than five unexcused absences.
The original proposal suggested that the board increase the exam's weight in all classes. After further consideration, the committee studying the grading policy revised its recommendation, saying that the weight should be raised only in subjects in which the tests have been validated countywide: algebra, biology, government, geometry and English 9. Other exams' weight would be increased to 30 percent as they are validated.
Now, the grade a student gets each quarter counts for 37.5 percent, and the final exam 25 percent. If the board approves the plan, the composition of the semester grade -- the one that shows up on transcripts -- will be 35 percent for each quarter and 30 percent for the final.
Nearly all the public comments received by the board opposed the exam change. The PTSA of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School, for example, wrote, "It would place more emphasis on a student's performance on one day or the ability to temporarily learn a large amount of information than on the learning that occurs over the 18-week semester. . . . Daily quality work should be emphasized, not performance on a single exam."
It is certainly difficult to find a student who supports the proposal, and the officers of the regional student council testified along those lines to the board. But proponents insist the change would help the system know how much its students are learning, deter kids from blowing off exams and better gird them for the state exams they will soon have to pass to graduate high school.
"If we do not prepare them, hundreds if not thousands of Montgomery County students will not be getting diplomas," said county Board of Education Vice President Sharon W. Cox (At Large).
Tailoring local priorities to the testing demands of the state doesn't sit well in this case with Montgomery County Education Association President Mark Simon. "If that's what education has become about," he said, "then we've lost a lot about what students and teachers and parents value most about learning," namely classroom experience. Increasing exam weight gives "too much emphasis to a fill-in-the-bubble, paper-and-pencil process, where some students tend to do better in that task and others tend to do worse."
The grading and reporting committee has also suggested eventually replacing the policy on loss of credit, as part of a bigger push to have a student's performance report based solely on mastery of the subject matter. The proposal to be voted on Monday suggests leaving loss of credit in place only until the school system can devise a non-punitive alternative.
Cox said the policy wasn't working as an incentive for students to come to class -- "It worked for kids who didn't want to face their parents," she said, "but it wasn't working for parents who didn't know how to access the system." Many teachers, however, disagree.
Adjua Adama, who teaches U.S. history at Rockville High School, was frustrated by the lax attendance policy at his former school in Pittsburgh.
"I'd have half my class one day and the other half the other day," he said. "For a mock trial, I'd have to have three to four attorneys on each side because I didn't know who would show up."
Montgomery County, he said, provides a welcome contrast, one that he worries might disappear without the loss-of-credit policy. "It very easily could revert to the situations I had," he said.
Those who oppose the policy say that once students reach the five-absence threshold, they won't bother coming to class, but Adama has seen differently. The students he's given loss of credit to stayed in class all semester, waiting for appeals. "None of them decided just to fully give up," he said.
But Cox said there must be a better approach, based in an ideal notion of students wanting to attend school because they have to do so to succeed.
"The underlying message here is that's there an expectation students will be engaged in class," she said.
"We're saying it's important to be in class, and you won't be able to pass class if you're not there" -- not because of an attendance policy, but because of students not being there to show they could do the work.