A March 25 article incorrectly reported how the Montgomery County Board of Education voted on a proposal to increase the weight of some high school final exams on students' semester grades. The board rejected the proposal. (Published 3/26/03)

The Montgomery County Board of Education voted unanimously last night to begin to increase the weight that final exams have in high school students' semester grades, from 25 percent to 30 percent.

The board also decided that grades in all academic classes will be based only on a student's mastery of the curriculum, part of an attempt to make report cards mean the same thing in every county school.

Nearly every piece of public comment submitted in the months leading up to the vote -- from parents, students and teachers -- opposed the increase in exam weight. Opponents suggested that it would send already stressed children over the edge, minimize the importance of what goes on during the other 170 days of class and penalize those who don't "test well."

Raising the exam rate, Churchill High School parent Pam Brown testified, would "damage student morale, when stress in our area is at an all-time high." She added that such a change "devalues good, honest work in the long haul."

In response, school system officials said it is essential that students learn to test well. Many high school students, they worry, don't take finals seriously and won't be prepared in four years when they will have to pass a state exam to graduate.

At first, the only subjects whose exam weight will increase are those with countywide final exams that have been studied by assessment experts and deemed reliable. Those subjects are government, biology, algebra, geometry and ninth-grade English.

As other exams are validated, their weights will increase to 30 percent as well.

The board also voted to look for a less punitive replacement for the long-standing loss-of-credit policy, in which a high school student loses credit after five unexcused absences in a class.

While the exam weight and attendance policies were the subject of by far the most public debate, the decision over what should make up a grade will have perhaps the most complex reverberations. Teachers throughout the country have been creating their own grading systems for decades, deciding how much and whether to count class participation, or effort, or improvement.

In 2001, Montgomery County officials, tired of hearing about A and B students getting to college and performing poorly, charged a work group with revisiting the policy.