Baltimore County school system modifies new grading policy

Baltimore County schools revised a grading policy this week that was widely criticized by parents.

Baltimore County schools officials have modified a controversial new grading policy they say was misinterpreted by teachers.

The policy, rolled out at the start of this school year, was intended to make students' overall grades more accurately reflect what they learned, without including scores from minor homework assignments and points for attendance and other factors, officials say. But it sparked an uproar among parents, who said it lowered their children's overall grades.

Baltimore County's chief academic officer, Verletta White, said teachers interpreted the new policy's focus on "assessment" to mean they should only grade tests and quizzes.

"It was never intended to be all tests and quizzes," White said. "I think that was the major point of misunderstanding. There are multiple ways to assess student learning. It could be a research report, or a lab, it could be an essay."

Before this year, tests counted for 30 percent of a student's grade, classwork was 60 percent and homework was 10 percent.

At the start of the school year, that was changed to say that homework, effort, attendance and behavior would no longer be factored into the grade. The policy did not specify how a grade should be calculated in percentages, but said a "body of evidence" that included assignments, tests, discussions and projects should be used to determine grades.

Parents protested the removal of such factors as homework and attendance, arguing that their children would be measured based on less than a dozen tests or quizzes, leaving them little room for error.

The revision released this week notes that tests, projects and other major assignments should make up a third of a student's grade. The other two-thirds should be made up of "minor summative assignments," including daily classwork, significant homework assignments, discussions and other assignments.

White said the modification was issued in response to "the themes that have emerged from the feedback we've received from our stakeholders" including parents, teachers and students.

When the earlier policy was announced, a petition started on Change.org calling on Baltimore County schools to drop it and accusing the school system of "setting up the students for failure" garnered more than 1,500 parent and student signatures.

Wendy Crites, the parent of a sophomore at Towson High School, said her daughter's grades and those of her friends had fallen, causing them intense anxiety.

"Their GPAs are falling but who is going to tell the colleges in the future why they're not doing well?" she said. "It's kind of a scary situation for the students and for us parents, too."

Crites said she had to hire a tutor for her daughter and that many other parents had done the same because homework assignments were no longer being reviewed in class, depriving students of a chance to learn what mistakes they were making and correct them before taking tests.

"It's extremely frustrating," Crites said. "I want to see her have a positive experience, I want her to want to learn. She's so stressed out before going to school and everything to do with it."

The new policy, called standards-based grading, is becoming more common across the country. Under the policy students in Baltimore County could re-take a test or redo an assignment to get a higher grade. Behavior, effort and class participation would not be counted as part of the final grade but would be noted separately on the student's report card. Those changes will remain.

Justine Stull, the PTA president at Westowne Elementary School in Catonsville, said some of the changes were helpful for her daughter , who is in fourth grade and was able to retake some tests and improve her score. But Stull said different teachers interpreted the policy in different ways, leading to confusion.

"There needs to be a level of consistency and it's not there yet," she said. "In some respects it works out well and in other respects it doesn't work out well."

Tanzi Leary, a PTA member at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School and Fort Garrison Elementary School, said she appreciated the policy revision because the rollout had been confusing.

"I think that wasn't their intention to have so much focus on tests, but that's what happened," she said. The changes, she said, "will relieve a lot of the anxiety."

Kevin Dalsimer, a math teacher at Towson High School, said he supported the initial policy change because he thought it would make students' grades more accurately reflect what they knew and leave them better prepared for Advanced Placement exams and college.

"It was easy for kids to have a grade that wasn't really representative of their knowledge base," Dalsimer said. "I thought it had a lot of value, to hold kids accountable, to provide kids with the incentive, but then also with the means to get there through individual initiative,"

Dalsimer said the revised policy will renew concerns among teachers about students getting good grades without actually mastering the material.

"To me it shows a lack of trust in the teachers and our ability to implement the policy with classroom level modifications," he said.

cwells@baltsun.com

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