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BPS officials weigh new grading system

Alain Jehlen
BPS officials weigh new grading system
Boston Public Schools Superintendent Brenda Cassellius. PHOTO: JOHN WILCOX, MAYOR’S OFFICE

What does it take to get an A?

Who deserves an F and why?

Should the answers to these questions vary depending on your school and your teacher?

Grading practices have a huge impact on every student’s daily life. During a June 2 meeting, the Boston School Committee heard a proposal from the administration for a new approach. If the Committee agrees, part of the new grading system will be incorporated in a new elementary school report card next fall. Deeper changes would start the following year, after pilot programs in 10 schools.

No points off for late work or bad behavior

Among the key elements:

• Don’t take points off when a student turns in an assignment late.

• Don’t consider student behavior in determining academic grades.

• Let students redo work that’s subpar, and only count the last effort.

• Make 50 the minimum grade on an assignment, not 0.

The main idea is for academic grades to reflect a student’s knowledge and abilities at the end of the course — not the student’s path to get there and not class behavior or work habits.

Proponents say the new approach:

• Encourages students to keep working on tough material rather than give up

• Reduces grade differences among races and income groups

• Helps students feel better about learning in school because they know they can make up for early mistakes.

A different grading formula for every class

Another major goal of the proposed policy is to make grading more consistent across schools and within schools.

“Imagine a student who has a seven-period schedule. It’s very possible, over the course of that day, they have seven different sets of expectations, seven different grading systems,” said Snowden International High School head Gene Roundtree.

Roundtree co-chairs a grading policy task force with Christine Landry, assistant superintendent for academics and professional learning.

A “game changer”

Former School Committee Chair Alexandra Oliver-Dávila was enthusiastic about the proposed policy (Oliver-Dávila has left the committee since this article was first reported).

“As someone who failed some classes, I wish that I had an opportunity that wasn’t just only summer school, but a learning experience where I could have worked with my teacher and worked in a way that wasn’t so punitive, or [had] a conversation where they got to know me and understand, why was I failing that class?” she said. “It’s going to be a game changer.”

Superintendent Brenda Cassellius set up the 29-member task force this spring. It includes 11 school principals, nine teachers, five central office administrators, and four other members.

Reportedly, Cassellius wanted the new policy in place for next fall, but task force members persuaded her to go slower because teachers will need time and preparation to make these changes to long-standing practice.

The minimum grade proposal — giving students a 50 for doing no work on an assignment — may seem strange, but Roundtree said that if a missed assignment gets a 0, it can be almost impossible for a student to pass a course. A student who gets one 0 needs three perfect 100’s to get even a C (70%) average.

Boston School Committee

How to keep students from giving up

“I’ve had a lot of conversations with kids, who get really, really far behind in terms one and two,” said Roundtree, “and if they have a 30 average they ask you the question, ‘Mr. Roundtree, how can I catch up this year?’

“We want to prevent kids from going into a situation where they’re mathematically eliminated from passing, and then they make the very shrewd and rational decision to disengage in that particular class.”

The grading guru

The grading proposals follow guidelines put forward by Joe Feldman, an education consultant who’s written a book called Grading for Equity. The administration’s plans call for Feldman and his staff to work with teams of teachers at 10 schools this fall to try out his system.

In his book, Feldman presents evidence that his approach shrinks the differences in grades among students of different races and income levels. Students who start out behind their peers because they lack the outside advantages of more affluent students have a chance to catch up during the year, Feldman says.

Roundtree presented the results of a survey of 16 BPS principals asking whether the principals thought grades reflected “what students actually know.”

On a scale of 1 to 5, half of the principals chose 3.

The task force also got 16 responses to a survey of Boston Student Advisory Council members on what the students think is the most important purpose of grades.

Two-thirds of the BSAC students who responded said the most important purpose should be academic knowledge and student growth.

Fifty assignments turned in at once?

The new grading proposal ran into some mild pushback from School Committee members. The most skepticism centered on the proposal that students should not be marked down for missing deadlines.

Student representative Xyra Mercer wondered whether that would be unfair to teachers.

“Does the new policy force teachers to work late nights due to students abusing the new no-points-reduction-for-late-work rule?” she asked.

Roundtree said students should be able to turn work without penalty a few days late but not at the end of the year or after the class had moved on to other units of study.

“So if you take a few days, then it’s still OK and you still get the full points, [but not] if you submit 50 assignments at one time at the end of the term?” said Mercer.

“Correct,” said Roundtree.

How will teachers teach life skills?

Oliver-Dávila and committee member Jeri Robinson wanted to know how students would learn to meet deadlines and learn other work habits that are important for success after high school.

Landry said teachers can rate behavior, but it would be rated separately from academic grades. But she also said that behavior ratings can be subjective and unfair.

“There is a strong emphasis on behaviors, especially with our youngest students, in the way that they’re graded, that are clearly subjective and not based on a rubric or an assessment,” she said.

“What we want to get to, in terms of our practices as teachers, [is] that we can go back and prove and show evidence for any grade that we give, that there was a clear system and a way of thinking about mastery on that standard, that [the teacher] had talked to the students about before they receive their grading.”

What does “showing self-control” really mean?

“Behavior is hard to [show evidence] for, because all have different conceptions of what ‘showing self-control’ means, which is something that we currently have on a report card,” Landry said. “But we can work with teachers to develop consistent ways to utilize rubrics for grading that that really will show students exactly where they are and what the next step is.”

Landry said the new K-5 report card slated to be introduced this fall will be based on state academic standards. Teachers will be asked not to factor student behavior into their academic ratings, she said.

Landry said the task force intends to have a comprehensive new grading policy written by the end of this calendar year for implementation in 2022–2023.

This article was originally published in Boston Parents Schoolyard News.