Friday, November 15, 2013

Grading Policies Rewarding Mediocrity

In 2009, the Texas 81st legislature passed SB 2033, in an effort to make grading in public schools more fair. The intent was to require schools publish a clear grading policy prior to the start of each school year, so students and parents would know exactly what was to be expected.

  relating to adoption of a school district grading policy.
         SECTION 1.  Subchapter B, Chapter 28, Education Code, is
  amended by adding Section 28.0216 to read as follows:
         Sec. 28.0216.  DISTRICT GRADING POLICY. A school district
  shall adopt a grading policy, including provisions for the
  assignment of grades on class assignments and examinations, before
  each school year. A district grading policy:
               (1)  must require a classroom teacher to assign a grade
  that reflects the student's relative mastery of an assignment; and
               (2)  may not require a classroom teacher to assign a
  minimum grade for an assignment without regard to the student's
  quality of work.
         SECTION 2.  This Act applies beginning with the 2009-2010
  school year.
         SECTION 3.  This Act takes effect immediately if it receives
  a vote of two-thirds of all the members elected to each house, as
  provided by Section 39, Article III, Texas Constitution.  If this
  Act does not receive the vote necessary for immediate effect, this
  Act takes effect September 1, 2009.

The law also intended to give students who had difficulty "getting it the first time" or who made mistakes misreading test questions a second chance.

The last intention was an attempt to remove some of the subjectivity in grading by including effort and improvement into school grades.

Those all sound like great ideas, on paper. In practice, however, things don't always work as intended.

However, the law has failed students, teachers, and parents as well.

In 1996, I went to a military school to change my career path in the military from Infantry trigger-puller to something in the Military Intelligence field. Before your mind wanders into an array of witticisms about "MI", there are a few things you need to know about the training.

First, to be selected into MI requires some high standards. The candidates must have scored above certain minimums on the ASVAB, usually at or above those which qualify for various commissioning programs such as OCS. The school, and job, requires deep, analytical abilities to be performed quickly, then communicated effectively to the end-users. The end-users are the decision-makers, their staffs, and those on the ground performing the mission. Lives are on the line. So the expectations come with very high standards.

In 1996, the school reflected the realities of real-world requirements. However, in the schoolhouse (as in training environments afterwards) there is some room for error and mistakes. Experience is the best teacher. A good student will learn more from an initial mistake (theirs or the misfortunes of another) than from simple book learning and lectures.

The schoolhouse accomplished this with a simple grading policy. If a student failed a test, the student received some tutoring, then was given a second chance at the test, usually a different version, though. However, the highest grade a student could receive on the retest was "passing". A second failure would mean the student had to repeat the course, effectively allowing two more retests.

Failing two tests, even with subsequent passing retests, would also result in repeating the course.

Back then, a student could repeat the course only once if the repeat were due to academic reasons. Not passing the second time around would result in being dropped from the school. For initial entry soldiers, this would mean that they would be sent to another less academically rigorous course. For those of us who wishing to change career fields, it meant returning to the old one and an assignment "at the needs of the Army".

Academic grades were important. There were standards. Just passing wasn't enough. A GPA below a certain published level required additional "study hall" sessions. Another standard was set to allow students passes on weekends, being allowed to wear civilian clothes when off-duty, phone privileges, etc. Higher GPAs would grant favoritism in selection for highly competitive assignments and additional schools. The higher grades also resulted in scholarships to civilian universities as well as awards and decorations. For some of us, there was just the competition and desire to be the best, the "Distinguished Honor Graduate".

The point is that there still existed those incentives to strive for excellence.

When I was teaching the same course years later, standards had changed. They had dropped. A student could repeat the course as many times as necessary until passing it. There was no longer a "two-strike" rule. One student repeated the course 7 times, remaining on student status for over a year instead of out in the force where he was needed. 3 other students could have been trained and assigned for the costs and time it took to graduate that one. The quality of intelligence professionals also declined as a poor policy of quantity replaced one of quality. It showed out in the real world, in combat.

That is what Texas SB 2033 and policies that derived from it have largely removed -- incentives for excellence.

The most common grading scale is the common Gaussian scale. For those unfamiliar with Gaussian scales, they are sometimes referred to as "the bell curve". The grading scales are as follows:

Symbol JISD Standard
A Grades from 90% to 100%
B Grades from 80% to 89%
C Grades from 75% to 79%
D Grades from 70% to74%
F Grades 69% and below
I Incomplete
NG No grade

However, this is not exactly Gaussian as it allows a larger window to earn an "A" or "B" than a "C" or "D".  Pure Gaussian grading scales would presume an equal number of "A"s and "F"s. Most, however, would agree that requiring 6% of the students fail a given test despite having demonstrated sufficient mastery of a subject is a bit too skewed and subjective, as well. So, we have this "hard scale". Should 25 out of 30 students earn a better than 93% average, there are 25 "A"s. The trouble comes with lowering standards or making tests too easy in order to perpetuate such a "halo effect", also known as "grade inflation".

So, the tests need to challenge without being overly difficult. It is a hard line for teachers and test-writers to accomplish. Thorough and clear performance rubrics make the task easier, though.

But the Texas Education Agency (TEA) sent this letter, in Oct. '09, explaining their policy regarding grades:

SB 2033, passed by the 81st Texas Legislature, requires each school district to adopt a grading policy, including provisions for the assignment of grades on class assignments and examinations, before each school year. A district grading policy:

(1)     must require a classroom teacher to assign a grade that reflects the student’s relative mastery of an assignment;

(2)     may not require a classroom teacher to assign a minimum grade for an assignment without regard to the student’s quality of work; and

(3)     may allow a student a reasonable opportunity to make up or redo a class assignment or examination for which the student received a failing grade.

TEA understands this legislation to also require honest grades for each grading period including six weeks, nine weeks, or semester grades for two reasons. First, if actual grades on assignments are not used in determining a six weeks grade, the purpose of the legislation has been defeated. Second, since 1995, Texas Education Code, §28.021, has required decisions on promotion or course credit to be based on “academic achievement or demonstrated proficiency.” If the six weeks grades do not reflect the actual assignment grades, they would not reflect academic achievement or demonstrated proficiency.

This legislation permits a district, through local policy, to allow a student a reasonable opportunity to make up or redo a class assignment or examination for which the student received a failing grade. By allowing students to make up work, a district would ensure six weeks grades reflect relative mastery of assignments, even if making up a prior deficit, rather than awarding an automatic grade to a student who has received a failing grade.
If you have questions regarding SB 2033, please contact Monica Martinez, Policy Director in the Curriculum Division, at (512) 463-9581 or via e-mail at

Sincerely, Robert Scott
Commissioner of Education
Refer back to paragraph (3). Notice that paragraph is nowhere within SB 2033 itself.

What this amounts to is the creation of inequitable grading and testing policies.

For example, here is the grading policy for one Texas school district (See page 10 of Judson Independent School District's Elementary School Grading & Reporting Handbook ) [Emphasis Added].

Reteaching shall be an integral part of the lesson cycle and may occur in many different situations. Teachers can check for understanding at any point during the lesson cycle. Teachers shall plan for reteaching at the same time they plan initial instruction, thereby ensuring that alternative instructional strategies are immediately available when needed. If initial reteaching efforts are unsuccessful, then the time outside of class may be necessary to reteach. If instructional efforts are unsuccessful, further diagnosis of a student’s needs using universal screens, data history and student work may be needed to intervene (RTI process).

The teacher will provide reteaching and retesting during class time if 25% or more students in a class failto demonstrate mastery of the TEKS on a summative assessment (below 70%). All students will be giventhe opportunity to reteach and retest with the higher of the two grades being recorded. Teachers should use professional judgment to differentiate for students who clearly mastered the content the first time (90% or higher). Reteaching to ensure that students master the material may include but shall not be limited to the following (EIALocal):

1.The student may be required to correct or rework unsatisfactory assignments.The grade earned shall replace the original grade.[Grade Inflation]
2.The teacher may require the student to attend a tutorial program or remedial classes. Co-curricular or extracurricular activities shall not interfere with the requirement to attend these activities.
3.The teacher may work with small groups during class time while other students work independently.

A more specific reteach policy should be designed by each campus. The campus grading policy should be fair, balanced, and support student learning. The campus grading policy will be submitted by the campus principal to the Associate Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction for approval each year. The district approved campus grading policy will be kept on file at the district office.

Failing Assignments
Senate Bill 2033 states that a district’s grading policy “may allow a student a reasonable opportunity to make up or redo a class assignment or examination for which the student received a failing grade.” Students  receiving a failing grade will be required (at minimum) to meet with the teacher regarding performance and to discuss recommendations for remediation within 3 days of the failing grade, or at the end of the six weeks, whichever is sooner. At this time, the teacher will provide the student a reasonable opportunity to redo a class assignment or examination in accordance with the district approved campus grading policy. Major examinations and projects should be completed no later than five days prior to the end of the six week, thus allowing students a reasonable opportunity to redo or make up failing assignments. The teacher may require the student to participate in tutorials, redo/revise the assignment, complete an alternate assignment or any other reasonable assignment as specified in the district approved grading policy. The teacher will provide at least one opportunity for students to redo a failing class assignment or examination. Additional time will be outlined in the district approved campus grading policy. The teacher is to record the higher of the two grades in the electronic grade book.
Then this note on Page 13 sums up one of the major issues:

NOTE: A JISD student shall not be given the option to choose to fail by not completing work or turning in assignments. It is the expectation that all possible interventions will be done to assist students struggling with these expectations. Campus policy should reflect a specific process for identifying and supporting these students per RTI. Parents/guardians should be a part of this process.

If a student pays attention, studies at home, does all required assignments, and gets an 89% on a test due to misreading a question, the student gets that 89%. That makes sense. The student should learn from the error and pay better attention to the questions the next time through.

Where this becomes inequitable, however, is that a student who earned a 67% gets additional tutoring and a retest. The student obviously needs the additional teaching. Retesting to pass is an acceptable metric. However, should the student get a 91% on the retest, the failing student gets the new grade replacing the failing grade. The student that may have gotten an "A" but received an 89% doesn't get an opportunity to raise his/her score. That is unacceptable. It is an inequality of opportunity. It is wrong.

Failing students who honestly want to work hard, improve, and learn the materials should get those second chances. School is where we are supposed to make mistakes, learn form them, and get those second chances. They are rare in the real world. Getting a product for work done on time and accurate can be the difference between a promotion and the unemployment line. that is real life. Those pressures should not be the same in elementary, middle, junior high, or high schools (though standards and expectations should rise with grade advancement). But the failing students should not be given the "bonus points" to their GPA. That inflates their GPA and makes them competitive with the students who work hard and "get it" the first time.

And students aren't allowed to fail. If they aren't putting in enough effort, the teacher has to make them. If they are putting in the effort but just don't "get it", they are supposedly entitled to retests limited by only the teachers' time and patience.

The only common-sense phrase in that note on Page 13 is the one that directs teachers to get the parents involved.

Teachers do have some amount of lee-way, though. One teacher, speaking on condition of anonymity, explained the law, the grading policy, and the inequities. He did state that he could, in rare exceptions, get away with a retest or redo for a student who normally gets "A"s but gets that unusual "C" on a test. However, he stated he will do so only when the student is willing to do the extra work and the parents are actively involved.

Combine these policies with those incorporated within programs such as CSCOPE and Common Core, with their lower, one-size-fits-all standards, and you have a recipe for disaster. It will become a great impediment to success, prosperity, ingenuity, merit, and achievement.

When time comes for the "honor roll" lists, the retest student's name is announced on the "high honors" or "All-A honor roll". The one who did much better the first time is reduced to the "B-list". The incentive to excel is lying in a shallow grave.

"Fairness is a concept championed by those too lazy to aspire to excellence" ~author unknown