Montgomery County is initiating a grading policy this year in elementary and middle schools under which teachers will not be able to consider a student's effort and classroom participation.
The new system was supposed to be used last school year in all grades but was postponed because of confusion about how it would work. Some critics say the school system still is not prepared to make such a major shift, and they worry about what signals it might send to students.
The policy, which will be adopted in high schools next school year, is designed to make grades a more objective reflection of academic achievement.
"The message for students is that your grade reflects what you know and can do," said Betsy Brown, the school system's director of curriculum development. Teachers will report participation, effort and behavior in a separate "learning skills" section of the report card.
Montgomery is among the first counties in Maryland to implement such a standards-based grading policy. School systems in Hawaii, Colorado, Kentucky and Canada use similar systems, Brown said. Education experts predict that more districts across the nation will soon follow suit.
"The old system doesn't work," said Robert J. Marzano, senior scholar at the nonprofit Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning in Aurora, Colo., and author of the book "Transforming Classroom Grading." "Nobody trusts grades because they aren't consistent. . . . One school's A is another school's B is another school's C."
Montgomery officials say the goal is to make grades an accurate predictor for how students will perform on standardized tests.
"There seemed to be too many surprises as kids went through their school careers," Brown said. "Kids who were getting good grades would then suddenly hit these very firm standards on assessments, and all of a sudden they weren't doing very well."
School officials said they are ready to implement the policy. School board President Sharon W. Cox (At Large) said the new grading system technically has been county policy since 1986. "It was just never truly done in practice," she said. "I think we have done everything we can to prepare."
Not everyone is so certain.
"I think they are really rushing this," said one elementary school teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from school administrators. "The system likes to trumpet these glowing initiatives, but they don't always take the time to train the people who implement them."
After last year's false start -- the new grading system was shelved two weeks into the school year -- the school board enacted a five-year plan to phase in a grading overhaul. Beginning next year, first- and second-grade teachers will be required to score students based on county standards for their grade level. Previously, a fourth-grade student with poor reading skills could be graded against objectives for a second-grader. The policy will apply to additional grades each year until 2008.
Since the spring, school administrators have been training teachers and passing out hundreds of pages of guidelines to explain the new policy. But some teachers are still concerned that they do not know how to implement the initiative.
"There's just a tremendous amount of anxiety around it," said Bonnie Cullison, president of the Montgomery County Education Association, a teachers union. "I think this first year will be a year of challenges for all of us."
One of the most significant changes will affect the grading of homework. Many teachers traditionally have given students credit just for completing homework, sometimes nudging a B up to an A in a class to reward effort. Now, teachers can only include homework in a final grade if the individual assignment is graded. Completion of ungraded homework can only be reported as a "learning skill."
The policy also says that students cannot be rewarded with higher grades for participating frequently in class. Participation will be considered only as a learning skill. The sole exception is if the participation demonstrates mastery of the curriculum, according to the new policy.
"You could be raising your hand every day and saying nothing," said Laura Siegel, a parent who served on the grading and reporting committee, "or just asking to go to the restroom."
Siegel said she supports the policy in theory but worries that the school system hasn't properly trained teachers.
"It looks good on paper, but it's not easy to do in practice," she said. "It hasn't even been put on paper in a succinct fashion."
Ross Mills, a second-grade teacher at Bannockburn Elementary in Bethesda, said he has yet to see the revised report card. "They are training us drip by drip," he said. "As soon as they decide what their policy is going to be, they get it out to us. But I'm not totally sure what the whole thing is going to look like."
Some teachers worry that the new policy will indicate to students that cooperation, participation, effort and teamwork are not important values.
"If they aren't given that kind of value by the system," Cullison said, "then teachers are afraid that students won't value" those characteristics.
Said Siegel, "When students know they are not graded on their homework, there is going to be a tendency not to do their homework."
School officials said the new policy puts a greater value on learning skills by reporting them as a separate category on report cards. But the learning skills will not be included on transcripts sent to colleges and employers, though some universities and companies have expressed interest in seeing them.
"It's too soon to make a decision on whether or not those learning skills will be included on the transcripts," Cox said. "We deliberately decided to wait and see where the glitches are."
The anxiety-inducing college application process is part of the reason some parents are worrying about the new grading policy. They want to see how the changes work at the elementary level before they affect high school students applying to college.
"Don't make our kids guinea pigs," Siegel said. "Don't mess around with our kids' grades and ruin their chances of getting into their college of choice."
But despite her concerns, Siegel said it makes sense to ensure consistency in grades across the county. Mills also said he supports the policy, even if the path to implementation is somewhat bumpy.
"The school system is very ambitious," he said. "They're not complacent, and I think that's a good thing."