MNPS’ new grading policy hits rift with teachers, parents

Friday, August 9, 2013 at 2:07am

As Metro schools adjust to an assortment of changes in how they teach, measure and evaluate education, the school district is taking on another controversial reform: how it grades students.

Beginning this year, teachers at Metro Nashville Public Schools will bring into play a new rubric that cuts out the bottom half of the grading scale. Students will no longer come home with scores below 50 percent on anything — whether it’s an exam, a quiz or missing homework.

The policy — which district middle school teachers have used for the past year — is stirring up concern among parents and teachers who argue the shift will coddle students by inflating their grades.

But education experts in and outside of MNPS argue the changes will focus attention on measuring whether students grasp the material, not on whether they turn homework in on time.

“There’s a big difference there between earning something and learning something,” said Amy Downey, the executive lead principal supervising middle schools who introduced the idea as a pilot program to 150 middle school teachers two years ago.

“Grading is a communication tool, and that is always what it was intended for. It just matriculated over the years into a system it was never supposed to, incorporating a lot of qualities about a person,” she said.

The change sets up a new point of conflict in a district that has been fraught with controversy over the past year. Tensions that have roiled MNPS range from drafting the next school calendar after last year’s sparsely attended intersession breaks, to conflicts at the board and district level over what role charter schools should play.

Despite those strains, the district’s top leaders voted this summer to extend the middle school grading policy to all grade levels.

Teachers are now required to give students multiple chances to demonstrate they understand the material, such as through retakes on exams. Zeros for failing to turn in work are gone, as are extra-credit assignments to boost a grade, although teachers must allow students more time to finish the assignment, according to the new policy. Students may still earn an “incomplete” for failing to finish a course.

“A lot of kids need practice, like you do in sports or music. Eventually you master that skill, so that’s what it’s about,” said Jay Steele, the district’s chief academic officer, who said the demand for a new grading scale came from high school principals.

“I don’t want to look at it as a zero to 100 scale, because it’s not that. It’s a 50 to 100, so kids can still make A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s. It does not affect the top students. They’re still going to make their A’s,” he said, adding he does not see the changes as an effort to boost the graduation rate, which this year is up two percentage points to 78.4 percent.

“Kids who are going to fail are still failing,” said Steele. “But our goal is to remediate those students and give them opportunities to get those higher grades. I don’t think it will affect the graduation rate. I think it might affect students’ GPAs a little bit better, but it’s not going to change the trajectory of a kid graduating or not graduating.”

Critics argue the changes amount to grade inflation.

“It will certainly have the impact of causing more students to graduate. I think that was really part of the intent, to make more students eligible to pass at the end of the semester or get credit at the end of the year,” said Erick Huth, vice president of Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, which represents teachers.

The teachers union was expected to meet Thursday to decide whether to take a position on the issue, which Huth predicted would be in opposition to “grade inflation and de-professionalizing of teaching.

“You have a policy that basically says the teacher does not have the discretion of assigning a grade between 0 and 49. Any grade that is raised to a 50 is essentially one achieved by policy and not by holding students accountable to the standards,” he said.

On message boards and social media, it’s apparent that parents have mixed feelings about the changes, including dozens of people who have commented on West Nashville school board member Amy Frogge’s Facebook page, asking her to look into the issue.

“This particular policy caught my attention, especially after I heard complaints about its implementation in middle schools last year, and after all this feedback, I have decided to ask some questions,” she told supporters on her page. She declined to comment further to The City Paper and said she was still examining the issue.

Jill Speering, a school board member from Madison with 35 years of teaching experience behind her, said she’s “excited” about the changes.

“A student who gets one zero maybe for a late assignment, it’s devastating,” she said. “I think it will serve as an impetus for students to continue the learning process, because if you don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean you’ll have such a low grade.”

The idea is hard for some people to accept, especially because most parents and teachers grew up with 100-point scales that average out students’ grades, said Hank Staggs, director of educational leadership and off-campus programs at Lipscomb University.

The current system measures students’ struggles understanding the material, instead of measuring their ultimate mastery of it, he said. The closer the link between students’ grades and their understanding of material, the better prepared students and parents can be to figure out what trouble areas students need to focus on.

Staggs helped implement a similar grading mechanism in the Franklin Special School District, where elementary students there were evaluated on individual standards, a policy that was also initially met with resistance.

“There are a lot of seasoned teachers who are comfortable with how they have graded in the past. It’s changed in Tennessee. We’re seeing a lot of change,” he said.

“Everybody 25 years old and up has only known a system where we had A, B, C, D, F, and their grades were averaged from a zero to 100 scale, and that’s just how we grew up. Anything different is change and something that we don’t really understand.”

12 Comments on this post:

By: kenstegall on 8/9/13 at 7:59

I have been a school counselor and teacher at every grade level. This policy is understood by anyone with boots on the ground in our high schools and middle schools. It is a simple matter of math and averaging. When a student earns a quarterly (9week) grade below 50, especially well below, it can become mathematically impossible to pass the class in the following 9 weeks. What may have been transitory poor motivation, or an undocumented (undisclosed) health or homelife issue becomes a situation for the next 9 week quarter of futility (no possible passing mathematically) for the student. Without hope, then these students become even more likely to become classroom behavior problems, skipping or truant. Giving a grade of "0-50" in the first quarter of grading is tantamount to saying don't bother trying to recover--it isn't possible.

I understand there are students who are profoundly resistant to the educational process and offer no effort for grades sometimes. I worked for 13 years with students with exceptional education emotional/behavioral disorder as a teacher. Some of these kids can be the hardest to reach (conduct disorder, oppositional defiant, etc...). Offering them hope and encouragement is the way to reach them. Not nailing them with a hopeless grade. If they never attain the standards, they still fail, but maybe they can be engaged in the process if there is the prospect of passing. Superlow grades are just a way for some teachers to say you are a waste of a seat in my room. That is not a message adults should send to our children.

Finally, thee is a lot of stone casting by folks who would want some consideration if they walked a mile in the students' shoes. When I was a young college student (many years ago), I missed an important deadline in a writing class and was summarily failed. I was working two jobs and exhausted and just couldn't get it done on time. You might say lesson learned...but no. Later in another course, I again missed a deadline, frankly with far less reason than the first time. I went to the professor and simply fell on my sword. I told him I had no good reason for missing the deadline. I just blew it--some professors would have failed me. He asked me how soon I could get it done. I said, "Tomorrow." I got the paper to him as promised. His grace to me is a lesson I have carried throughout my life to students. I never had another late paper for him, I wanted to honor his kindness and in fact I continue to honor in my dealings with everyone...that's what I am the counselor. Give grace ... you won't regret the return, ever. Lessons need to be taught about deadlines I get that. But grace needs to be taught too. In fact I will say grace is caught...and I hope all my students catch it from me.

By: CrimesDown on 8/9/13 at 9:15

kenstegall...So if they earn a grade below 50%, it is near impossible to pass? Then the thing to do would be not to do that. Kind of like Hee Haw...Doc it hurts when I do that and the Doc said, well don't do that. If making below 50% for not turning your homework in makes it hard to pass, then doing all of your homework on time makes it almost impossible to fail, right?

This is just a way that the schools can graduate people that don't need to graduate. It makes it look better because teachers will follow the new rules. To pass them in the old way, the teachers and schools basically have to cheat the system for them to pass.

We need kids to do well in school, but we also need ditch diggers. If they want to dig ditches, let them.

By: CrimesDown on 8/9/13 at 9:31

“Everybody 25 years old and up has only known a system where we had A, B, C, D, F, and their grades were averaged from a zero to 100 scale, and that’s just how we grew up. Anything different is change and something that we don’t really understand.”

That is a very condescending statement. I think most people over 25 understand perfectly what's going on. The schools are throwing their hands up and saying, "We give up."

I feel for teachers. I have had to deal with many Nashville students. I have gone to high schools, and arrested students for theft, drugs, burglary, rape, robbery and murder. What bothers me more than anything is that I have arrested students in school, that had several previous arrests for selling drugs, burglaries and robberies. They have no business being in school with other kids.

By: ancienthighway on 8/9/13 at 9:40

If only the key grades were tallied on the books as you describe, yet actual scores, to include those less than 50%, were used with homework, quizzes, and tests at the end of a chapter, I could support the change.

If I have two consecutive quiz failures, and they both show 50%, the grade, and the teacher, are lying to me if they weren't truly 50%. I wouldn't know if any changes I made in study habits between the quizzes actually worked, when the first score might have been actually a 23% and the second score a 47%. That is a significant improvement, even if it is still a failing grade, and it's something I would brag about with my friends that were also failing. I wouldn't be proud of failing, but I'd be proud of improving. I would also have hope for scoring a passing grade in the future. Every failing grade scored as 50% doesn't give me bragging rights, pride, or hope.

I would hope a grade of Incomplete is still being used, allowing work missed to be completed. I would also hope that the teacher's assessment of how engaged the child is in the learning process is also used. Both fall into the "grace" arena you mention.

By: rldavenport@com... on 8/9/13 at 10:06

I believe in "grace" as much as anyone for people who have extenuating circumstances, but this system still does not provide motivation for unmotivated students to work harder to improve their knowledge and grades. It perpetuates the mentality of "average effort is OK", not only in school but in future life. We have way too much of that thinking in the workplace and in society.

By: donsan on 8/9/13 at 11:49

When I went to school you either passed or failed. If they are going to change the grading system to allow everyone to pass, then why make them attend; just give them a diploma.

By: donsan on 8/9/13 at 11:50

Do we need to wonder what has happened to our country???

By: govskeptic on 8/9/13 at 12:11

Exactly where did this idea or new plan for grading come from? Did this originate at
the Disney Chocolate Factory or some LA or Mass. commune where all the little
darlings have settled into a "Stefford Child" like syndrome where all are smiling
happily and being totally alike? The originator and or community or institution
where developed, please.

By: tomba1 on 8/9/13 at 2:03

sounds like another obamaism to me. Little Barack does nothing and gets a 50. Little Billy busts his butt trying but just doesn't get it and actually scores a 50. Which one is better and how would you know from the grades? This is sending kids the totally wrong message. Shouldn't they be learning responsibility and accountability? Just what does this teach them about those things?

By: hummingbirdhill on 8/9/13 at 6:06

I am not really for or against the new grading scale, but I have a nephew who is trying to get the lottery scholarship. Don't the school have to use the same scales as everyone else? that is what his counselor said last year and now it's changed.

By: TennesseeJed on 8/9/13 at 7:29

Unlimited chances to retake tests and assignments means more grading time by teachers and less time for planning effective lessons. The people who are excited about this policy are the ones who don't have any contact with actual students and don't know what the heck they are talking about.

By: howelln on 8/9/13 at 9:11

This policy is a huge disservice to the college bound students, particularly in the academic magnets. While this may be a good idea in elementary school, it is a bad, bad idea in high school. Life does not work that way. There is no penalty for cheating, plagiarism, or simply not doing the work. Students have no chance to learn about cause and effect.
The whole thing was rushed through an sprung on teachers with no warning. Most had already made copies of their classroom expectations for the first day of school. I suspect that this whole "experiment" is just data for someone's dissertation for a PhD program. It really is just shameful.