At the beginning of the school year, some Baltimore County students came home convinced that homework no longer meant anything, as the public school system introduced changes to grading policy on a trial basis.
But school system officials are stressing homework still matters, even if it's not part of a student's grade.
Officials attempted to debunk myths circulating about the policy, while parents voiced concerns, during a Wednesday night meeting of the Southwest Area Education Advisory Council, a committee that meets monthly to discuss education issues. About 15 parents and staff members attended the meeting at Westowne Elementary.
Christina Byers, senior executive director for curriculum operations for the school system, said homework should be used to practice what has been taught in the classroom, and be a way for teachers to show students how they are progressing.
"Practice falls in the middle of the learning circle," she said. "We want students to get feedback before the grade is factored in."
Under the policy, explained in a 60-page document available on the county schools' website, homework is not graded, teachers cannot give a student a failing grade lower than 50, and students who don't perform well on certain assignments can redo it to potentially get a higher grade.
When students don't complete work, the school system recommends teachers give students a grade of "incomplete," rather than a failing mark, according to Linda Marchineck, a coordinator with the school system's Division of Curriculum and Instruction.
If a student has multiple missing assignments, the final marking period grade would be an "I" for incomplete information, because the teacher could not determine a grade, she said. After two weeks, the "I" turns into an automatic "E" — a failing mark with no credit awarded — if there is no resolution.
Marchineck said giving a zero to students who don't do assigned work lets them off the hook.
"The solution isn't to let them out of it," she said. "It's to hunt them down and find them and make them do the work."
Among the concerns parents had about the new policy was a lack of communication.
Yvette Gould of Catonsville, who has children at Johnnycake Elementary, Milford Mill Academy and Lansdowne High schools, said she got a better understanding of the policy at the meeting.
When the school year started, her fifth grader was under the impression he wouldn't have homework, she said.
"I don't think it was explained properly to the children," Gould said.
Teachers at Relay Elementary School have talked about how to make sure students learn the importance of homework, said principal Lisa Dingle.
An idea being considered is giving students what she called a "homework quiz" for a grade, based on homework assignments, after they receive feedback on them.
"Once we think that learning cycle has occurred for [the] homework, then we can make that a formalized score," Dingle said, adding it's a way to determine who is doing the assigned homework.
Parents were also concerned about behavior not being a portion of a student's grade.
Byers said the goal of the grade is to indicate where a student is performing against a learning target. Parents of students in first through 12th grades will see a separate conduct score in report cards, she said.
"We're just removing from the achievement grade other factors, but that doesn't mean we're not reporting on them," Byers said.
The new approach is called standards-based grading and is becoming more common across the country.
Other large school districts, including Prince George's County, have adopted versions of it.
Teachers will report behavior, effort, class participation and whether the student has done homework on the report card, but it will not be counted as part of the grade.
Homework will be assigned but not graded. There are exceptions for longer assignments such as an English essay or a biology lab report, which will continue to be graded, said Baltimore County's chief academic officer, Verletta White.
Baltimore Sun reporter Liz Bowie contributed to this report.