New grading system for county teachers

Baltimore County school administrators have ordered all teachers to begin using a grading system next month that will require them to judge whether each of their students has mastered more than 100 specific skills.

The decision, which was made by top administrators last week and communicated to teachers by their principals last Thursday and Friday, is opposed by the teachers union and dozens of teachers who say it is cumbersome and time-consuming and will not be a useful tool.

The system, known as Articulated Instruction Module or AIM, was designed by a longtime school system employee and had been implemented sporadically in the past several months, although it was supposed to be mandatory throughout the county. Barbara Dezmon, assistant to the superintendent for equity and assurance and AIM's inventor, said top administrators decided to require each teacher to comply with using the system by the end of the second marking period in late January.

"We finally [can] tell students and parents what they know and what they don't know," Dezmon said. Students will continue to receive their report cards every quarter, but the AIM report will provide precise information on what skills each student either has not learned, is in the process of learning or has learned. Teachers must give students an A (needs Acceleration, or remedial help), I (needs further Instruction) or M (has Mastered) for each category.

Dezmon said she created the tool after she saw that some minority students were not receiving the same education in southwestern area schools as they were in the northern part of the county.

AIM has been supported by Superintendent Joe Hairston, and although he was out sick the day the decision was made last week, he was aware and supportive of it, according to Charles Herndon, a spokesman.

"I don't see how I could possibly have time to do this unless I took the day off," said Ruth Rodowsky, a teacher at Middleborough Elementary School. She said most teachers in her school work 12-hour days and are always willing to do anything they believe will increase achievement. But, she said, AIM "serves no purpose."

Another teacher said she believes it would take up many hours of her valuable planning time to complete the checklists for each student.

"Our students will begin to suffer because their teachers will be so burned out and barely able to keep up with all of the recordkeeping," said Carrie Wheeler, a Fullerton Elementary School teacher who said she has supported most of the county's new initiatives.

The teachers union president, Cheryl Bost, said Hairston has not been responsive to the union's request to meet to discuss streamlining AIM to reduce the workload.

Use of AIM was originally supposed to be voluntary, but the district made it mandatory beginning this fall, according to Dezmon.

AIM is available to be viewed on the Baltimore County Public Schools Web site. It shows that elementary school teachers, who often have classes of up to 25 students, will have to judge each of their students on whether they have mastered more than a hundred skills in as many subjects as they teach. In high schools, where some teachers can have more than 100 students, the task will be no less complicated, teachers say.

Over the course of a year, many teachers would have to make as many as 10,000 marks indicating whether a child had learned a task. For instance, a third-grade teacher would have to determine whether a child has dozens of skills, including the ability to "apply phonics skills to decode words with hard and soft consonants and 2-letter initial consonant blends." And in middle school math, one of the skills listed says, "analyze and describe non-linear functions using the vocabulary of appearance."

Some art and music teachers and librarians who only see students once a week may have difficulty gauging whether 350 or 400 students have learned specific skills, Bost said.

Bost argues that while AIM is designed to help parents understand what their children know, many of the items are unintelligible to anyone who does not know educational jargon.

Dezmon acknowledges that some of the items are in jargon, but says teachers and administrators should explain them so that parents understand. She said the value in the program is that school administrators can look at the thousands of pieces of data and find out where the teaching is not effective so they can correct problems.

Herndon said he believes that the teachers who have complained are in the minority. "We feel our teachers are up to the task. We think very highly of the teachers; we think they are capable," he said.

Brian Scriven, principal of Woodlawn High School, said despite the "rumblings" through the county, he believes the program is a good one. "The key is that it is an awesome tool in terms of parents and students knowing where they are," he said.