16 August 2008

Dallas ISD and Grading Standards

Much has already been said and written about the Dallas Independent School District’s new grading scheme. If the documents (one here) available on the internet are accurate, the policy looks to pursue dumbing down of student expectations and ramping up teacher reporting requirements.

Some writers have bemoaned the retesting mandate, where the student may retake a test and get the higher of the two scores as his grade. But this assumes no creativity on the part of the teacher. The policy never says that the test must be the same test. Retests should be significantly more difficult than the original; they must never simply be a rehash of the same test, especially a multiple choice or matching test. This can be done easily in all subjects. Simply require the student to write a short paper detailing all of the information they should have mastered for the test. These tests are easy to grade as well, requiring only a cursory reading to determine if the student has really mastered – or at least memorized – the material. And the hard fact is that most students who actually decide to travel down this road won’t.

What is more troubling to me is the requirement for teachers to make parental contact before giving a student a zero in the grade book. Just giving a zero, the policy states, “is not a best practice”; this means that there is some research somewhere that confirms this. At least theoretically. No direct reference is made in the policy to any peer-reviewed research. Regardless, writers have made the point that a teacher who has 150 students and who made five homework assignments per grading period would have to make and document 75 parent contacts if just 10% of his students did not turn in various assignments. Add on top of that students who did not complete in-class work. Add on top of that students who miss tests. Add on top of all of these the fact that many of the student who fall into the “zero” column do not have stable home environments, meaning that teachers have to search even harder for a phone number that results in a ringing sound at the other end. The parental contact rule, therefore, actually punishes the teacher. There are, of course, creative ways around this policy as well, but the spirit of this policy is clear: teachers must call parents and should not give zeros.

Lastly, a policy that seems to have slipped by most writers is the keystone of the DISD grading house of cards.
“Teachers with a three and six weeks failure rate of >20% in any subject area will be required to develop and submit an intervention support plan for struggling students that will be monitored by the principal.”
The same goes for reported failure rates for schools in a given subject. So if a teacher has a group of kids who just decides to blow off a project one grading period, the teacher is put under the microscope, not the student. And while the policy does not state it, it may be rightly assumed that teacher contract renewal will hinge on getting that percentage below 20%, not in how well they teach. Numbers, you see, take less time and are easy to judge; subjective evaluations of actual teacher performance in the classroom takes time, and effort, and real judgment.

That to me is what is most lacking in the DISD grading scheme: judgment. It focuses on numbers – zeros and 20% – and not on the people who produce them. Generally speaking, teachers make exceptions for students who work hard and need a boost once in a great while. Late assignments are accepted, alternate assignments are given, and students learn (or at least are given the opportunity, again and again). These things go undocumented and are not policy specifically because making them part of a district’s policy would officially lower the bar for the students.

My fear is that teachers who are beset with students who expect nearly nothing of themselves and who search for the magic “less than 20%” will simply bow to the pressure. Homework will become nonexistent, the same test will be given repeatedly (in class, no doubt), and a name on a paper will be scored as a 50…or whatever it takes to pass the kid. And it won’t just be “bad” teachers who may do this. Good teachers who feel abandoned (sacrificed?) by their administration may well go down the same road. Why fight it?

The curriculum goal of Dallas ISD, as stated on its website, is “to educate and graduate students ready for college.” The reader can judge for himself or herself if the DISD grading policy that I’ve touched on here supports that goal.

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