Maryland’s largest school system just made it easier for high school students to get A’s.
Just months after deciding to eliminate traditional final exams, Montgomery County has announced significant changes to its method of calculating grades starting in the 2016-2017 school year, most notably that final course grades will be rounded up after a student’s two quarterly grades are averaged. If a student gets, say, an A for the first quarter in geometry and then a B for the second quarter, the student’s semester course grade would be an A. If a student gets an A in one quarter and then a D in the next quarter, they would end up with a B.
The move is a departure from the county’s previous grading scheme, which generally relied on a student’s two quarter grades and a final exam grade. When a course had no final, the grading trendline prevailed, so that if students slumped from an A in one quarter to a B in the next, their semester grade fell to a B. No longer.
The new grading system potentially could help students reach better grade-point averages, which are important in college admissions. But some educators voiced concern about grade inflation and the need to give students an experience resembling what they will see in college.
District officials say the new grading approach was selected as a way to move away from the trend-based system — which some saw as unfair — while staying with letter grades and limiting the amount of change. They say they sought out public comment and worked with focus groups, finding a range of opinion but drawing wide support for the choice they made.
“A huge win for students with the newly released grading system being implemented next year,” Eric Guerci, the student member of the school board, tweeted Tuesday night. In an interview, Guerci said many students and principals had voiced support for the change. “It avoids the trend system, which we know doesn’t work for students and is largely arbitrary in that it gives more weight to the second of two marking periods,” he said.
The grading changes come at a time when Montgomery is making the transition from final exams — the norm for years at the end of each semester — to new, shorter quarterly assessments that will count toward a student’s quarter grade.
A school board committee discussed a range of grading options last fall. Larry Bowers, the district’s interim superintendent, made the final decision ahead of the next school year, when final exams will be gone.
The board earlier eliminated final exams amid widespread concerns about overtesting and a loss of instructional time. Under Montgomery’s old system, a final exam was worth 25 percent of an overall grade, and each quarter counted for 37.5 percent. But failure rates on math final exams were very high among high school students, and there were complaints about students who gamed the system, not putting much effort into certain exams because their course grades would not be swayed with a poor showing.
School Board Member Patricia O’Neill said she believes the grading shift will be a positive one overall, noting that each potential option has drawbacks. “There was no perfect solution,” she said.
Erick Lang, associate superintendent for curriculum and instructional programs, said he could not speculate about whether Montgomery students would wind up with better grades or higher grade-point averages through the new system. “That remains to be seen in terms of how it all plays out,” he said.
Lang said district officials consulted with colleges and universities and heard back that they are accustomed to seeing a wide range of grading approaches. He said the message was that “they were going to adjust to whatever we did in terms of how we laid out the semester grading because they see lots of different ways it’s done.”
There is no uniform standard to school grading systems, even within states. In Anne Arundel County, Md., for example, officials also are scrapping final exams and replacing them with quarterly assessments next school year. But that district will use a student’s percentage grade for each quarter to come up with an average that determines a semester course grade. “We feel it more accurately reflects the achievement of a student,” said spokesman Bob Mosier.
If a student in Anne Arundel gets a 94 percent for one quarter and an 80 percent for the next, the average would be 87 percent and result in a B in that school district. In Montgomery, those two percentages would result in an A.
Guerci, the Montgomery student board member, offered an example of how he sees percentage grades as falling short, saying that if a student earned a 70 percent in one quarter and worked hard enough to get to an 85 percent in the next quarter, the student would still get a C because the average would be 77.5 percent. Under Montgomery’s new system, that grade would be a B.
School officials say the new system is based on a “quality point” assignment, so that a quarter grade of A counts for 4 points, B for 3 points, C for 2 points and D for one point. A student who gets an A and then a B would have 7 points, or an average of 3.5 points, which is rounded up to an A.
Montgomery County officials noted that Howard County also uses a quality points system.
“This new grading calculation aligns with standards-based approaches to assessment and college expectations and provides a grading structure that is fair, consistent, and understandable for students and parents,” Montgomery wrote in a message to families on Tuesday.
Some teachers find the grading change troubling.
Sarah Straus, a math teacher at Quince Orchard High School, said the district’s process to end final exams and adjust grading policies has seemed too rushed and “not the right decision for teenagers” because it does not mirror the college experience.
“I don’t feel that a student with a 90 percent first quarter and an 80 percent second quarter has demonstrated an A level of mastery for the semester,” she said. In Montgomery, only semester course grades show up on the transcript students submit to colleges.
Many math teachers preferred averaging percentage grades for the two quarters of a semester, she said. “It was a truer representation of a student’s mastery,” she said. They also worry the change is a form of grade inflation, she said.
“Students will learn very quickly they only need an A in one quarter to get an A in the class,” she said. “And the same thing is true for the B. They can go B-C or C-B and get a B for the semester.”
Russ Rushton, head of the math department at Walt Whitman High School, also said the change will probably result in grade inflation — more students getting A’s in courses who would have gotten B’s under the old system.
“Students will quickly figure out they can drop one grade in the second quarter of a semester and still keep the higher grade,” he said. “Will kids do that? I have no doubt they will.”
Rushton also said the change seems to be at odds with the school board’s goals. “I thought the board wanted us to be constantly challenging our students to work as hard as they could,” he said, noting the district’s focus on raising expectations and closing the achievement gap. “How does this change in the grading policy help us do either one of those things?
Alan Goodwin, principal of Whitman High, said he did not think it will lead to a great degree of grade inflation and that ideally the new quarterly assessments – now worth 10 percent of each quarter grade — will more closely reflect what students are learning. “If it can keep more kids engaged in learning, that would be helpful,” he said.
Goodwin said several students who learned about the changes Wednesday were intrigued; one asked if it was going to be retroactive.
He laughed. “No, unfortunately not,” he said.
Nina Marks, a college counselor who founded an educational nonprofit, said she expects the change to result in higher grade-point averages, which could then leave college admissions counselors taking a harder look at other measures of student achievement, including SAT or ACT scores and Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) exam results.
“It’s a fact check,” she said. “What does your A or B mean?”