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As A’s surge, Md. leader pushes to stay the course, study possible grade inflation

Montgomery County Superintendent of Schools Jack Smith speaks at Thomas Edison High School of Technology in Silver Spring, Md. (Cheryl Diaz Meyer/For The Washington Post)

Amid concerns about a surging number of A’s on high school report cards, leaders in Maryland’s largest school system will stick with the district’s grading policy and study questions of grade inflation over the next year or so.

Jack Smith, superintendent in Montgomery County, has recommended possible refinements in 2019 or 2020 but urged elected leaders to first give the grading policy, in place less than three years, a longer run.

“What we are saying to you, and to the community, is let’s keep working on this together instead of making another wholesale change,” Smith told the county school board in December.

The percentage of A’s in core math courses in Montgomery nearly doubled from the first semester of 2014-2015 to last school year, soaring from 16 percent to almost 32 percent, according to district data. B’s rose more modestly, while C’s, D’s and E’s dipped.

High marks also shot up in English and science courses — increases that followed a major shift in how students are evaluated. Montgomery stopped giving district-created high school final exams in 2016-2017 and rolled out a new grading policy.

One of nation’s largest school districts ditches high school final exams

Some educators predicted the new policy would drive up A’s because students gained an advantage they had not had before: When students earn an A in one quarter and then a B in the next, they get an A for the semester. Likewise, a quarter grade of B and then C produces a semester grade of B.

The data showing a sharp increase in A’s first came to wide attention in the fall, after a school board member asked for figures and The Washington Post made a public records request.

The board delved into grading issues at its most recent meeting, with school system staff presenting a history of grade-policy changes and detailing data that show student grade-point averages edging up since 2006.

“It’s very difficult to tell what we are seeing when the rules seem to change over time,” said Janet S. Wilson, associate superintendent for the Office of Shared Accountability.

Smith said that as further study is done, the district will look to external assessments — typically, standardized tests given by the state or others — as a check on whether grade inflation exists.

But “if the grade is an accurate representation of the student’s performance, we shouldn’t be worried about how many kids get an A,” he said.

Still, some continue to be concerned.

Thousands more A’s fill report cards in suburban Md. school system

Christopher Lloyd, president of the county teachers union, said he views the data as suggesting that grading-policy revisions of 2016 inflated student grades. He said he would like to see more action, more quickly.

“I’m not an incrementalist on this,” he said, urging an audit of grades.

Patricia O’Neill, vice president of the board, said she understood Smith’s rationale, but it had not alleviated her concerns. “I still feel there’s grade inflation,” she said. “I don’t think they necessarily proved their case that there’s not.”

O’Neill said she would support a grading approach that gives students a percentage-based grade for each quarter, which could then be averaged, or that uses pluses and minuses with letter grades.

“Grades have to communicate how kids are doing, and they need to be pure and honest,” she said.

Jeanette Dixon, another board member, said teachers need to be surveyed — on grading practices and the district’s decision to end districtwide high school final exams. The exams were replaced by quarterly assessments, amid heightened concerns about excessive testing.

“I would like to know if the teachers think what we’re doing is working,” said Dixon, who supports a return to final exams.

As the issue was discussed in December, school system officials emphasized that there is no perfect grading system and that the surge of A’s has not diminished the positive reputation of Montgomery students.

Scott Murphy, director of secondary curriculum and districtwide programs, said college officials have told the school system they do not have a preferred grading method.

“What we hear often is that the brand of [the school system] remains strong, because our students get to colleges and universities and after the experiences they have in our curriculum . . . they’re going to college and they are well prepared,” he said.

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Smith spoke emphatically at several points, saying the school system wants success for all. “It’s not about having some slow down so others can speed ahead,” he said. “Everyone can be at the top.”

He cautioned the board against concluding tests are “too easy” because more students get top marks. “How about: We’re doing a better job of teaching, we’re doing a better job of monitoring and understanding what our kids know and adjusting our instruction?” Smith said.

Cynthia Simonson, vice president of educational issues for the countywide council of PTAs, said the abundance of A’s is welcome if student performance is similarly surging on state tests or other measures. But it’s not clear that is happening, she said.

“We have unanswered questions,” she said. “Why would students be doing so much better on the internal measures, but they don’t correlate to the external measures?”

Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, lauded Montgomery’s old practice of giving cumulative district-created exams across its 25 high schools — unusual nationally — as a way to ensure consistency and high expectations, he said.

Petrilli said his think tank recently published research showing that grades in wealthier schools in North Carolina increased more than test scores did. Why that happened is unclear, but one hypothesis is the grade spike was driven by pressure from parents.

“The real challenge is that if it becomes very easy to get an A, we worry that students aren’t going to work as hard — and we know that more effort leads to greater learning,” he said. “We may not be doing students any favors by giving them more A’s.”