The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Abolishing grades on homework will hurt the neediest kids

Smart teachers are fighting a dumb plan.

Inspired by what she learned in her Advanced Placement environmental science class, Ela Gokcigdem developed an environmental literacy course roughly two years ago as a student at Wakefield High School that her principal agreed to offer at the school. In 2018, 56 percent of the school’s graduating seniors passed at least one AP final exam, nearly three times the national average. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)
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The pandemic has been tough on teachers committed to making sure their students develop the skills and understand the concepts in their courses. Many kids didn’t show up for Zoom classes. Grades were often awarded based on hope for future improvement rather than demonstrated achievement.

Now some schools are experimenting with easing homework and grading as a way to be fair and coax students back into the learning process. I had assumed educators would quickly realize this was a formula for disaster.

But I have learned such take-it-easy policies are being seriously considered in what I have considered for many decades to be one of the best school districts in the country — Arlington County, Va., right next to our nation’s capital.

Arlington teachers are revolting against the ideas. District spokesman Frank Bellavia said it is all preliminary. The district “is in the early stages of revising the grading and homework policies and policy implementation procedures,” he said. “As part of Phase 1, we provided some ideas for staff to look at as a starting point.”

I think even that is going too far.

At Wakefield High, improving education is a matter of principal

Arlington County is studying proposals that would, among other things, remove penalties for missing homework deadlines and prohibit grading of what is called formative work — daily assignments. Faculty would grade only what are called summative assessments, which generally means tests.

Teachers at Arlington’s Wakefield High School, a successful campus where half of the students come from low-income families, have sent a letter to the county school board and superintendent denouncing the proposals.

“We agree with the idea that formative assessments must not count as much as summative assessments. However, we completely disagree with the proposal that none of the formative work should be counted,” they said. “It is very likely that students who do not complete or do a poor job with formative assessments will not do well on summative assessments either. … Anecdotally, the Spring 2020 virtual learning experiment during the pandemic taught most of us that students do not, will not, complete work if it is not for a grade.”

The critique went deeper: “In addition to learning how to construct an effective argument in writing, solve math equations, or properly conduct science experiments, as students matriculate through high school, they also learn how to develop organizational, time and stress management skills and grow as responsible, civically engaged, and considerate young adults,” they said.

“To achieve these ends, students should be held accountable for completing their work in a timely manner and meeting deadlines that were reasonably established by their teachers,” they said. “We pride ourselves on providing useful constructive criticism for our students, analyzing and reflecting on major content and skill-based assignments and providing them with exemplary work from their classmates. We do not see how this practice can continue if the ‘timeliness of the completion’ is not considered in the submission and grading process.”

Arlington is a great school system. The fact that its leaders are formally considering such changes convinces me that the pandemic did greater harm than I thought to American public education. I share the teachers’ view that the district’s long experience in raising standards shows the proposed changes can’t work.

I have written several pieces about Arlington’s insistence on hard work and demanding teaching to promote learning. I have seen its high school principals and teachers change the lives of impoverished students by preparing them for and welcoming them into college-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.

Arlington has a magnet secondary school and two high schools drawing from mostly middle-class neighborhoods. All three of those schools are in the top 1 percent of schools nationally measured by participation in AP and IB exams, as reported in my annual Challenge Index list.

That is impressive even for schools where most parents are college-educated. But Arlington’s fourth high school — where half of the students are from low-income families — sets a standard for such campuses that we rarely ever see.

That school, Wakefield High, is where the teachers who wrote the protest letter work. The school is the subject of a recent University of Virginia study chronicling its success in challenging every student. Wakefield is in the top 2 percent of schools nationally measured by AP and IB participation. In 2018, 56 percent of its graduating seniors passed at least one AP final exam, nearly three times the national average.

Critical race theory or not, let’s tap into all students’ potential

District officials who want to ban grading of ordinary assignments and prohibit bad marks for late work are essentially saying they don’t care about or don’t understand the reasons for the remarkable achievements of Arlington students and teachers in the past.

A letter from Arlington schools Superintendent Francisco Durán to a Wakefield staff member who signed the protest letter said the proposals for changes in grading and homework rules “were crafted based on the feedback Academics and School Support staff received from the School Board to focus on more equitable grading practices.”

School Board chair Barbara Kanninen told me the board “is always interested in stakeholder perspectives, and we especially value the input of our teachers. … The board is not, however, currently considering any specific proposals.” That will come later. District spokesman Bellavia showed me a detailed schedule of meetings, drafts and public comments on the proposed reforms that stretch into August.

Many parents who hear about the proposed changes will be astonished and enraged. One of the reasons Arlington has one of the highest percentages of residents with college degrees in the country is the quality of its schools. I cannot believe the county school board, elected by voters, would go for this. But these are strange times.

The Wakefield teachers who wrote the letter understand that the many children of county residents who did not go to college are likely to be hurt most by lowered expectations. The teachers said: “Students who come from families which are not as ‘savvy’ or ‘aware’ will be subject to further disadvantage because they will not be held accountable for not completing their homework assignments and/or formative assessments according to the deadlines set by their teachers.”

I suspect part of the inspiration for the suggested reforms in Arlington is a growing national movement in favor of what is called mastery education. It is an interesting idea. Grades are de-emphasized in favor of making sure all students have mastered a course before sending them on to the next level.

Some educators say this works. But most of them appear to have tried it only in private schools. They have a long way to go before they can convince most parents this is the best way to organize public high schools.

In the meantime, trying to mess with what great teachers are doing is madness. The pandemic was hard for nearly everybody. But let’s please not give up on what worked before that disaster, or we will have an even bigger catastrophe on our hands.