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CMS: Second chance at a better score isn’t a grading giveaway

Students at Ranson Middle School take a math test.
Students at Ranson Middle School take a math test. dlaird@charlotteobserver.com

On the first day of school, county commissioner Bill James forwarded a social media criticism about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ grading policy.

The unnamed commenter had told James that CMS forbids teachers to enter any grade under 60, the lowest possible passing score under a new scale this year.

The premise wasn’t correct, but the controversy has been simmering for a couple of years, since some schools started requiring teachers to let students try again when they fail a test or skip an assignment. Now it’s a districtwide rule mandating that teachers and principals “embrace a shift in thinking” to create “an environment in which students earn higher grades because they put forth more effort, improve through teacher feedback, and complete work at a higher level.”

“It’s not a free ride for kids,” said Chief Academic Officer Brian Schultz. “It does not give students the ability to come in and do nothing and earn a grade.”

This year, the questions about CMS practices are compounded by the statewide change in grading scales, with each letter grade corresponding to a 10-point range rather than a 7-point one. Under last year’s scale, a 93 was the lowest A and a 70 was the lowest D. Now a 90 is the lowest A and a 60 is the lowest D.

The state mandate applies only to high schools, but CMS is using the same scale in lower grades for consistency.

“To a lot of people it’s just another way of dumbing down the education system,” said Judy Kidd, a recently retired CMS teacher who heads the Classroom Teachers Association. She said the looser grading scale and the district’s retesting mandate are ways for leaders to boost scores and “make themselves look better at the expense of students and teachers.”

What does ‘mastery’ mean?

The grading debate plays out as CMS and North Carolina have seen graduation rates rise, even as test scores indicate that many of the students getting diplomas haven’t mastered skills they need for college and careers.

Almost everyone agrees that’s a problem, and that the ultimate goal is successful young adults, not higher numbers on graduation rates or test scores.

The approach CMS is using, known as mastery learning, is based on the idea that students can work with teachers to relearn what they missed the first time and get credit for what they’ve accomplished, even if it takes more time. Computer programs can zero in on student weaknesses, providing lessons and practice questions to help them catch up.

Sometimes good students have bad days, Schultz says, and a very low score can bring down an average to the point where the student may give up. The district considers a score of 79 – a high C – to be a mark of mastery. Students who fall below that level on tests can try again, but the maximum they can earn is 79. That’s to preserve an advantage for students who do well on their first try.

“What we’re trying to do is give students an opportunity to stay in the game, to not let one score impact their grade to the point where they can’t recover from it,” he said.

But that approach bumps up against the notion that students learn a real-world lesson in consequences if they pay a penalty for lack of effort or knowledge.

James, the county commissioner, says the state and CMS have relaxed standards to create the appearance of success, rather than the reality. Two years ago, North Carolina revised its ratings on state exams to put more students into the “passing” category.

“The issue is not just about not failing one child but rather about the integrity of public school records,” James said Wednesday. “Whether justified or not, some public schools are seen as diploma mills.”

Reality can vary

Schultz says CMS leaders and classroom educators spent almost two years hashing out consistent grading rules. The goal is to make sure grades accurately reflect student learning and teachers do all they can to build those skills.

Among other things, the rules eliminate two controversial practices: awarding extra credit for unrelated acts, such as bringing canned food for a charity drive, and docking grades as punishment for bad behavior.

No matter how noble the goal, in a district with 168 schools and more than 9,000 teachers, actual classroom practice will vary. My guess is that there probably are some principals sending their faculty a message, explicit or implicit, that no students can get failing grades. Almost certainly there are teachers who feel like they’re being forced to coddle kids who aren’t trying.

Schultz and Kidd agree on one point: The real value of any plan plays out at the schoolhouse level.

“Where you have good leaders, the student is going to learn,” Kidd said. “Where you have people who aren’t good managers, grades are going to be given out wholesale. They’re not going to be earned.”

How grading works

These rules are spelled out in a CMS “grading procedures plan.”

▪ Students who earn less than a 79 on tests must get a chance to relearn the material and try again. The maximum score for a retest is 79.

▪ Students who don’t complete an assignment or make no effort on a test get a zero, but must get another chance.

▪ Students who missed an assignment deadline because of an excused absence must be given full credit for late work.

▪ Students who missed a deadline because of an unexcused absence or who were present but failed to turn in an assignment must still get an opportunity to turn in the work for credit, but can be penalized.

▪ Grades cannot be used “in a punitive manner.”

▪ Grades (including extra credit) cannot be used as rewards for unrelated activities such as getting parents to sign forms, donating to classroom charity drives or participating in extracurricular events.

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