Baltimore County won't give grades for homework

Liz Bowie
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Should homework be graded? Should a zero really be a 50?

Linda Hurka, a mother of five, always has taken an interest in her children's school work, but she was never one of those mothers that had time to lead the PTA or advocate for an educational cause.

Baltimore County's new grading policy changed everything.

Furious that homework, effort, attendance and behavior will no longer be factored into students' grades, Hurka was stirred to action. She spoke passionately at the school board meeting last week and passed out 75 leaflets to parents at Dulaney High School on back-to-school night. She has contacted the County Council. She wants the policy revised.

"This grading system actually discourages effort since it basically has no value reflected in the grade," Hurka told the school board.

Many parents and teachers are perplexed by the new grading policy, which took effect at the beginning of this school year on a trial basis. It reflects a philosophic shift to focus on what a student knows as the basis for the grade.

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 a test or assignment can redo it to get a higher grade.

Baltimore County's chief academic officer, Verletta White, said the new policy is supported by research.

"We will have high standards for our students," White said, including grades that "aren't muddied by other factors" than achievement.

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. Baltimore City established 50 as the floor for number grades several years ago.

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, White said.

What irks some teachers, said Abby Beyton, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, is that behavior isn't part of the grade.

"My folks are concerned that the behavior and attendance is going to get lost in the shuffle," Beyton said.

Teachers want students held accountable for their behavior and attendance in some way, and she is looking for tweaks that can be made to the policy that will accomplish that.

Beyton acknowledged teachers in the county are split on the new policy.

"There are lots that are upset and lots that aren't," she said.

Martin Stranathan, a biology and chemistry teacher at Dulaney High School, doesn't find the policy troubling. He has been using a version of it on his own for years to focus students on the excitement of learning rather than the grade.

"Honestly, I stopped grading homework 15 years ago," he said.

That hasn't stopped him from giving students feedback on their work. He said most of his students do the homework he assigns, particularly because he points out that they will be quizzed on the material.

Rick Wormeli, an education consultant who lectures on grading and homework, said Baltimore County's new policy is a model for others.

"I was thrilled that Baltimore County is becoming a flagship for wisdom on this," he said.

Wormeli said the no-grading policy reflects "a major cultural shift" that is usually controversial when first introduced. He argues that putting homework and behavior in a separate category on report cards actually elevates the attention students will pay to it.

Another aspect of the policy being criticized is the letter grades. The county is changing the grading scale so that a failing grade goes from 50 to 59 rather than from 0 to 59. The rest of the scale remains the same, with 60 equivalent to a D, 70 is a C, 80 is a B, and 90 is an A.

White explained that students who get a zero on an assignment or test will have a difficult time improving their grades even if they begin to do better as the year goes on.

"We want to make sure students can recover from a low grade," she said.

When struggling students feel they can never catch up because of a zero grade, they are demoralized, Wormeli said.

"It forces the kids to give up," he said.

Along with the no zero policy, teachers will be able to offer students multiple chances to prove they have learned a lesson. So if a child fails a test or turns in an essay and gets a low grade, the student may retake the test or rewrite the essay. White said teachers can put a cap on the number of do-overs they allow.

Nicole Yoder, a former teacher and a parent of an elementary school student, finds that aspect of the policy "ludicrous" because students will feel they can do the work whenever they feel like it.

"It kind of takes away the purpose of doing the assignment," she said. "It takes complete student accountability and student responsibility out of the equation."

Yoder worries that students who work very hard and do all their work will be getting the same grades as those who don't do the work but can pass the tests.

The grading policy was developed after two years of review by a large group that included teachers, principals and administrators in the school system. The new policy is being tested this year across the school system. White said it can be revised next summer after feedback.

Yoder has discussed the policy with teachers and believes many are confused by how to carry it out.

Yoder believes successful people usually put in a great deal of effort to master their work but that is not the message children in county schools will get from the new policy.

Her daughter, a sophomore, recently completed a 25-page packet of homework for an Advanced Placement class in psychology. She did very well on the assignments but told her mother, "It doesn't matter because it is not a test and doesn't count."

liz.bowie@baltsun.com

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