CARY — Faced with a backlash from teachers upset about proposed changes, Wake County school leaders backed away Thursday from banning zero grades and limiting punishment for handing in assignments late.
Teachers voiced their concerns during the past two weeks after school administrators began discussing the possibility of making the grading changes next school year. After several school board members talked Thursday about putting the changes on hold, administrators unveiled a new proposal that encourages, rather than dictates, changes in how teachers grade.
The new guidelines, which will receive further review, were praised by the previously concerned board members.
“It respects the autonomy of teachers,” school board Chairman Keith Sutton said. “It allows for more empowerment and flexibility at the school level.”
While the previous proposal would have set 50 as the minimum score for work not handed in, the new proposal has no minimum grade. Instead, it encourages each school to develop its own plan for helping students recover from zero grades.
Where the previous proposal said that students could only be penalized as much as 10 percent for late work, the new version leaves it up to each school to set its own penalty.
The previous version would have allowed students to ask to take a test again, with the higher grade being recorded. The new version says only the teacher can determine whether the retest is needed.
Administrators had previously told the board that a districtwide plan was needed to promote consistent grading practices across the state’s largest school system. The new version calls for consistency within individual schools, rather than across all 170 schools.
“We wanted to capture the concerns that we received from the board and the teachers in the community,” said Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance.
Thursday’s developments mark the latest chapter in a decadelong effort by administrators to change the way grades are issued. The district has brought in consultants and had principals, assistant principals and teachers read books that charge that the traditional method of issuing grades is flawed, with zeros seen as too punitive.
Background on proposal
Administrators had proposed changing the grading policy between 2010 and 2012 before the issue fell off the table during the district’s search for a new superintendent. The proposal resurfaced Oct. 29 as administrators talked about getting board support for changes in the 2014-15 school year.
Much of the discussion focused on the way zeros make it difficult for a student who receives one to get a passing grade. John Williams, senior director of high school programs, had told board members that the current grading system “permitted rivers of hopelessness,” in which students felt they couldn’t recover from zeros and pass.
Administrators had told board members that the district should overhaul its grading policy to make sure the marks reflect what students know, not how well they behave. But the proposal to ban zeros and to allow students to hand in work late for credit drew some concerns from board members who said it could protect slackers.
But board members including Jim Martin, the sharpest critic of banning zeros, emphasized Thursday the need to help students recover from low grades.
“We want to end up where we respect learning, we respect responsibility and we create a mechanism to enhance learning and don’t cause kids to give up,” Martin said.
Board members said they had received “a lot of emails” from teachers since the Oct. 29 board committee discussion.
‘A thought-out process’
Board member Susan Evans said she appreciated that the proposal had been made with the best of intentions. But teachers had complained they felt they weren’t being treated as professionals, she said.
“This would be a very dangerous time to force one more thing on our teachers that would tie their hands in a number of different ways,” Evans said.
Board member Tom Benton, a retired principal, said the panel can’t write a policy that does anything more than to instruct schools to have discussions about grading practices.
“Unless we can get closer to some kind of consensus, we have to be more deliberate about this,” he said.
Board member Bill Fletcher said the board should be sensitive to the community perception of banning zeros as a lowering of expectations and standards.
At the end of the committee’s discussion, administrators put the new version before the board. The proposal will be shared with principals Dec. 5 and discussed again at the Dec. 10 meeting of the board’s policy committee.
Some things haven’t changed, including the plan to begin awarding behavior grades for middle school and high school students. The subject grades wouldn’t reflect “academic-related behaviors.” And the behavior grades would not affect a student’s grade point average.
“This has to be a thought-out process,” Moore said.