Recently, there has been some questions raised about the Greenville County School District’s grading policy. This issue has garnered some media attention, and was an agenda item at February’s Greenville County School Board Committee of the Whole meeting. I have received several questions, and thought it would be helpful to provide some context.
What is the policy? First, this isn’t a new policy. In 2007, the Greenville County School Board approved a grading scale (policy here) which set a grading floor of 61 for Middle Grades. Basically, it defines the LOWEST grade that can be awarded in Middle School grades as a 61- instead of a 0. This floor is designed to allow ample opportunity for a teacher to award a student an F for failing to master a skill, but still provide the student and parents with some opportunities to bring that grade up. This policy was modified in 2007 by the Greenville County School Board- what is being discussed is how Middle Schools have implemented this policy.
So what is new? One of the core philosophies of our district is to allow Principals the authority to create a culture within their schools while following District policies. In 2009, Beck Academy and Blue Ridge Middle School principals, using this 2007 policy as guidance, implemented a version of this grading floor. In 2011 Greenville Middle School did the same. In the course of regularly scheduled principal meetings, these schools shared the successes they were seeing with this policy (including a REDUCTION in students not turning in work and an IMPROVEMENT in passing rates for students). It was decided, by this team of Middle School principals and District administrators, that all our Middle Schools would implement this grading floor effective Fall 2015. This Fall, 11 schools implemented this, 2 more in Spring 2016, and one will in Fall 2016 (again, using a timeline that was appropriate for the Principal and his/her school).
What is the purpose of this? There is a growing discussion about the purpose of grading, is it to demonstrate a student’s level of mastery, or is it to demonstrate compliance. If we believe grades should demonstrate mastery, then giving someone a 0 simply because the project is late, would be an inaccurate grade- because it suggests the student demonstrated a 0% mastery of the skill. This floor of 61 was created to allow teachers the opportunity to still award a failing grade, while giving the student/family the opportunity to work harder to improve this grade.
Think about it this way, if your student were in a class, and scored the following grades: 85, 85, 81, and 0 (for a late project), his average grade would be a 62 (an F). The 0 would bring his grade so far down that he would need a 100 just to get a passing grade for the semester. I don’t know about you, but I would not be motivated to get a 100 in this context.
More importantly- Is that single 0 a better reflection of skill mastery than the combined four higher grades? But, if that teacher had assigned a 61 for the assignment (which is still an F), the average would be a 78- leaving opportunity to work harder on the 5th assignment to move the final grade up to a B.
Is it working? It is too early to tell. However, in Fall 2014 (before this practice was in place), there were 98,000 assignments not handed in, across the district’s Middle School Classes. This Fall, there were 85,000. For me, that is significant. I have requested that breakdown by school, and will update this when I have that information. I am also interested in whether this practice is INCREASING workload for already overstressed teachers.
Isnt this just letting students off the hook? I don’t think so. A 61 is still an F. We are still providing Fs as end of course grades, and students are still in danger of repeating a class that they failed. However, unlike a 0, a 61 is a grade that could be brought up. The real question is this: what is the purpose of a grade? Is it designed to have a measurable reflection of a student’s skill mastery, or is it a punitive solution to handle a behavior (late work)? For me, a 0 reflects the student has learned absolutely nothing, which I would find hard to believe is accurate.
So my kid does his work and gets a 75, and another kid turns his late and gets a 100? Not likely. Again, this practice doesn’t forgive a late or incomplete assignment. You will still likely get a failing grade. It simply says a 0 isnt a fair measure for an assignment. The teachers I spoke to said their tendency was still to award an F because the incomplete or late assignment didn’t meet the requirements of the assignment. But, they also saw that students were more likely to try harder on the work if they knew it would still be accepted late rather than a guaranteed 0.
So what is the problem? In my opinion, this is an implementation problem, not a policy problem. When I spoke with Guidance Counselors, Teachers, and Principals from Middle Schools, I learned that this practice is being implemented in various stages. None of the schools where I spoke with individuals (including Hughes, Greenville, Hillcrest, Fisher, and Riverside Middle Schools) shared concerns with me about the practice, some just said it was “an adjustment” from the way things are being done.
One specific school, Riverside Middle School, seems to be having a difficult time adjusting to this new policy, and some faculty have sent anonymous letters to the board asking us to get involved. Because the letters were anonymous, I have no way to speak with these specific teachers about their concerns- but I have not received similar concerns from anyone other than these anonymous Riverside Middle School teachers. At our request, the District sent Deputy Superintendent Phillip Davie to meet with Riverside Middle School faculty on two occasions to hear their concerns, and work to develop a solution. I have had no further concerns raised directly to me since these meetings.
While the board should be monitoring actions at schools, an implementation problem should be resolved through the appropriate personnel and professional development opportunities within the District’s toolbox, and doesn’t rise to the level of board involvement unless there is a need for a policy change.
Did I hear that this policy could encourage cheating? The question was raised “If a student is cheating, will he receive a 0” and the answer given was that the grading system is not the most effective tool in our tool box to address cheating. This was not clarified, and there is certainly some concern here. But, when I asked two principals for context they said their practice was to give the student an Incomplete, and then handle the discipline issue through their discipline policy. Students are suspended for cheating, and this grading floor practice has not changed that policy.
What happened at the board meeting? At our February COW meeting, Trustee Rohleder requested the board take up this issue, and an hour was added to the agenda for discussion. During that hour, the staff presented information and answered Ms. Rohleder’s questions. After an hour, I suggested, and Ms. Rohleder agreed, that we should refer this discussion to the Instructional Policy Review committee to make any recommendations. That didn’t end the conversation, just moved it to a venue where staff and board could roll up their sleeves and look into the impact this policy is having- and if necessary, make any suggested changes.
It was reported that 8 other board members had lined up to speak, and I cannot speak to that. But, there were no objections raised when I asked the conversation be referred to the committee. I cannot speak for the other board members, but I wanted the conversation tabled for two reasons: 1- there was no specific motion or action item we were seeking to resolve 2- the Instructional Policy committee exists to address these specific types of issues and if there is a specific motion it would come from this committee’s work
Is this a violation of state Dept of Ed policy? In 2012, then SC DOE Supt Zais sent a letter (attached here) describing his concern about the grading floor, but also recognizing this policy is a local district policy. To my knowledge, we have had no conversations with the Supt. Spearman about this. District Attorney Doug Webb addressed this question and was convinced that this practices is in line with the district’s grading floor policy and does not conflict with state grading policy.
So what are the next steps? There are two groups working on this issue and I want to hear from them before I form any opinion
One- the District has formed an Instructional Policy Review Committee, chaired by Ms. Ball-Oconnor, and they are spending the year pouring through every instructional policy created by this board. This committee representing board and staff members, is looking at whether they are still relevant, accurate, and compliant and making recommended changes. This policy, IHA, is within their scope of work, and I expect their committee will be spending some time wrestling with this issue.
Two- at the state level, the SC Dept of Ed has formed a similar committee, and Board Chair Lisa Wells is representing the Greenville County School District on this committee. This Grading floor policy is on the table. Frankly, until these two committees have finished their work, it would be premature to take up this issue.
Since what is happening in the Middle Schools is neither a violation of SC Dept. of Ed policy nor a violation of existing Greenville County School Board policy, it is my recommendation to the board and staff to table this discussion, continue collecting input and data, and re-evaluate when the state and local policy review committees have finished their work. Currently, the board voted to TABLE the discussion, and there is still a likelihood that it will be brought up before the board again if there is a motion or if board members ask for it to be brought up again.
What do you want to see happen? First, I want to make sure we are compliant with State and Federal law, and with local board policy. The advice of the School Board legal counsel is that our current policy violates none of these. But, in the long run, I think we are missing the larger question here: what is the purpose of a quality education, and how do we measure the impact of this experience? Currently, we are using outdates measures, like Seat Time and standardized tests written for other states to reflect skill mastery. Wouldn’t we be better served giving students tests/assignments to measure their skill master, allowing them to advance at their own pace through the skills.
If you have more questions, call me, Derek Lewis, 864-423-5316 or email me Derek@lewis4schools.com and I will work to gather more information. Also, if you sign up for my newsletter , i will keep you updated with this and other School District related happenings.