The dreaded F has been all but banished from the grade books.
The report cards that arrived home late last week showed few failing grades but instead marks of "I" for incomplete, indicating that students still owe their teachers essential work. They will get Fs only if they fail to complete assignments and learn the content in the months to come.
-The Washington Post, 11/14/10
Dumping Fs? Are they crazy? Well, yes... and no. And yes. And no. And maybe. And no. And yes...
Not only did the story of West Potomac High School all but eliminating failing grades from report cards make the Post's front page yesterday, it was the bacon and eggs of drive-time radio this morning. That and the hundreds and hundreds of readers' comments on the Post website declare that grading is no trivial matter. Yes, grades are incredibly important to the education process: they not only summatively symbolize a student's mastery of a subject to colleges and employers, but long before that happens they communicate an immense amount of (often complex) information from the school to the student and her family.
Many who read the story may think the pros and cons of the new (and old) grading philosophy are the heart of the article. They couldn't be more wrong.
The point of the story – and the dialogue occurring inside and outside the halls of West Potomac High – is that no single grading methodology can possibly fit the thousands and thousands of students of any school district. In fact, as we see in this case, one approach cannot even do justice to the educational needs and goals of the students of just a single school! One size does not fit all.
This grading issue alone shows it's time for Loudoun's school board to jettison its (at best) tepid "support" for charter schools, and admit that meeting the goals of all 60,000 students in our diverse school system requires a diversity of teaching approaches and environments that charters can provide.
Mary Mathewson, an English teacher, says a number of her colleagues are "livid" about the grading change, which "takes away one of the very few tools we have to get kids to learn." "I don't believe it's an extra chance," she said. "It's an out. The root problem is motivation. The root problem is not that we're not teaching them."As these quotes from the Post article show, there are strong, often incompatible sentiments from all stakeholders at just one high school, about how students should be graded. Morally and pedagogically, there are no defensible reasons why a multitude of grading methodologies should not be available to our public school students. Why should we permit educators to limit parents and students to a single model of education which, at best, fosters mediocrity, and, at worst, perversely limits education achievement and marginalizes significant segments of our student populations – especially when the educators can't agree even among themselves what is the best model? Even if we limit the focus to grades, how can we honestly claim that a monolithic, highly arbitrary grading system can meet the needs of thousands of students of different ages, grades, cognitive capabilities, social-emotional levels, socio-economic backgrounds ... oh, the list of factors affecting the individual student's learning achievement is endless, but that's the point.
"Once they demonstrate mastery, you give them credit for what they know," said Mickey Mulgrew, Prince William's associate superintendent for high schools. The growing belief, he said, is: "Who cares if you learned it on Monday or Tuesday, as long as you learned it?"
"If we really want students to know and do the work, why would we give them an F and move on?" Noonan said." . . . I think the students who are struggling should not be penalized for not learning at the same rate as their peers."
"I think giving Fs has a purpose, and that is to demonstrate we have standards [students] have to meet, and if they don't meet them, they don't pass," said Michael J. Petrilli, executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an educational policy think tank.
Many parents ask about fairness: What about the conscientious student who keeps up with class, studies until 2 a.m. and pulls an A on a math test? Should a peer who skipped class and flubbed the test twice or three times get an equal grade? With the new policy, the ultimate grade on a student transcript could be the same, even though the two students took very different paths.
"I think there is a fairness issue involved for the kids who do play by the rules," parent Carol Farquhar Bolger said. "The question becomes: What is a grade from West Potomac going to mean now? What does an A mean now?"
Student Harmain Rafi, 16, said she views it from a similar angle, failing to see how it "balances out" not to hold students to the same deadlines and test opportunities. "It more or less says all the hard work I'm doing isn't going to be worth anything," she says.
The problem with the situation at West Potomac isn't that some of the stakeholders are right and some are wrong, it's that they all are right. Realistically, the only way we can address this glaring flaw in our education system is to not just allow charter schools to Loudoun County, but to invite them in.
Current state law gives
Dr. Hatrick said in the past week, “Charters are designed to help local school systems address unmet educational needs. In localities that have strong public schools, it is hard to demonstrate a need for a charter school.” I have to ask, does he consider Fairfax County and West Potomac High less than "strong?" My blog-colleague and school board chairman, John Stevens, limits his support of charters to that of a possible means for keeping future school construction costs down: “Charter schools can’t really compete with Loudoun County Public Schools in terms of quality,” he said, “but they could help us address a different issue, which is our rapid growth.”
Neither perspective promises to result in school choice in Loudoun during my lifetime.
To set the record straight, it's not that our educators, administrators, and school boards don't believe that multiple grading methodologies aren't necessary to a "quality" education, it's that they don't want parents, students, and taxpayers to have a say in which methodology is used on their children. The fact that West Potomac adopted a system different from other Fairfax County schools, and that schools across the country employ thousands of distinct variations of grading (check out this New York Times article), demonstrate that there is no one way to do it and educators know that. The problem is that our politicians allow us to use only the one our neighborhood school happens to be into. Even in Loudoun County, there are significant differences in grading philosophies and methods from building to building.
For example, I recall reading in a recent article about Broad Run High School's retiring principal that that school has "floored" grades at 50 for years. How qualitatively and quantitatively different is that from replacing Fs with Incompletes? The lowest grade a student can get is still driven by a principal's policy with the same goal of giving that student more time to pass. Yet, if a parent believes that minimum grade philosophy best fits her goals and her child's needs, she can only avail it if she lives in the Broad Run attendance district. Conversely, if her child goes to Broad Run and she disagrees with that assessment practice, she can do nothing about it. How many other LCPS schools offer different grading systems? (Of course, for a parent to find out about such important aspects of their children's learning is far from easy, since few schools advertise these practices.)
Here's my challenge to our Board of Education: Given that you agree that a diversity of teaching methodologies is necessary to meet the needs of a diverse student population, please defend your practice of limiting where, when, and to whom each is deployed, giving your customers virtually no say in the quality and type of education services they receive. Based on the passions raised across the region and the country by grading systems alone, these considerations are not inconsequential matters to teachers, administrators, and students and their families. I invite you to defend your position that charter schools are not an effective, complementary means of delivering responsive, quality education services to the citizens of Loudoun.
Should one size fit all (or at least all the students in a given building)?
I assume that each of the school board members reads this blog since it is administered by their chairman. I assume that Drs. Hatrick, Ackerman, and Kealy read this blog for similar reasons. Contributions from each of you to a true dialogue about education choice in Loudoun in this forum are welcome.
The floor is yours.