After considerable debate, the Baltimore County school board last night adopted a new grading policy for elementary schools.
By a 5-4 vote, the board approved a policy that "discourages traditional letter grades" in kindergarten through third grade but "encourages" the traditional grades in fourth and fifth grades.
In other action, the board told the education department's Model School Committee to study further a plan to establish a year-round, magnet elementary school, and requested a report by September.
Under the new grading policy, each of the county's 94 elementary schools can set its own methods for rating students and decide what form report cards will take.
A sample elementary report card, developed by a committee of parents and teachers, breaks each subject into a number of specific skills that can be rated on a scale of 1 (achieves standards independently), the highest, to 4 (not applicable), the lowest.
For so-called "self-development" traits, such as showing respect for others or using good work habits, students would be rated outstanding, satisfactory or needing improvement.
Letter grades still will be required in middle and high schools.
Baltimore County is not the first jurisdiction to move away from grading in elementary schools. Carroll County gave up traditional letter grades for first- and second-graders years ago, said Dottie Mangle, that county's elementary school director. Young students there get O's, S's and N's on their report cards -- Outstanding, Satisfactory and Needs Improvement.
But Carroll County parents' concerns about using such a system for older children prompted the retention of traditional grading for children in grades three and higher.
The original Baltimore County proposal, developed by the grading committee and endorsed by Superintendent Stuart D. Berger, would have moved away from traditional grades in elementary schools, with middle schools providing a period of transition to more formal grading.
But during the debate, board member Calvin Disney said, "I would like to see letter grades continued for fourth and fifth grades. We have heard from a lot of parents who have concerns. I don't think we should ignore parents who have come to us."
Some teachers have said traditional grades don't measure what's being taught, and are more important to parents than children. They wreak havoc on self-esteem and slap children with labels that are tough to shake off, no matter how hard students try, some teachers say.
Parents' concerns have included a feeling that gradeless systems penalize A and B students, dilute academic standards for the sake of self-esteem, put more work on overtaxed teachers and cut into their children's class time for conferences.
Winnie Carpenter, mother of three students, said last night that she is happy Mr. Disney pushed for a compromise. But she said the idea that individual schools can set grading methods is "so confusing."
"Across the board, it should be a standard decision," she said.
Before the vote, Dr. Berger urged the board not to require letter grades in middle schools.
The board reacted coolly last night to a staff plan to create Maryland's first year-round elementary school in 1994 with a magnet program incorporating a variety of educational trends and with students on staggered vacations.
The Model School Committee unveiled a proposal that would reopen Cromwell Valley Elementary School, now used for administrative offices, as a school for all seasons.
Closed 10 years ago when enrollments were declining, Cromwell would become a regional magnet school specializing in computer technology that would test the feasibility of using year-round schools to eliminate overcrowding and reduce the need for school construction.
In their proposal, officials said that Cromwell, on Providence Road just south of the Baltimore Beltway, would relieve overcrowding at five surrounding elementary schools and, by being a magnet, draw students from Hillendale Elementary, which has a mostly black enrollment. This would alleviate some racial imbalance there and at the reopened Cromwell, which would eventually have 500 students.
With an emphasis on technology, there would be one computer for every six students. And those computers would be linked to other classrooms and schools within Baltimore County and throughout the country.
While children there would study typical elementary school subjects, plus a foreign language, the computer technology would be integrated into the curriculum.
Several weeks ago, staff members broached the year-round concept -- with staggered schedules for different groups of students -- as one way to accommodate a growing population with limited construction funds.
Although the board did not consider the year-round concept last night, it did question how computer technology would fit into an already crowded elementary curriculum.