Wake schools looking at grading changes to ban zeros for next school year

khui@newsobserver.comOctober 30, 2013 

— Starting as soon as next school year, zeros may be banned as grades from Wake County schools, and students could be guaranteed the right to hand in late work for credit and retake exams to get higher scores.

School administrators said Tuesday that the district should overhaul its grading policy to make sure the marks reflect what students know, not how well they behave. Senior officials told school board members that the current system in which students can get grades as low as zero is too punitive.

“The zero knocks kids out of the box,” Superintendent Jim Merrill said. “That is the dropout path.”

Todd Wirt, assistant superintendent for academics, said Merrill’s top administrators are considering setting 50 as the lowest grade a student could receive throughout the state’s largest school system.

Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance, said administrators are hoping for the board’s support to use a revised grading policy and an accompanying set of school guidelines for the 2014-15 school year.

The proposals drew mixed reactions at Tuesday’s policy committee meeting, with some members questioning why students who don’t do any work should receive any grade higher than zero.

“Not giving a zero protects a slacker,” school board member Jim Martin said.

For the past decade, Wake school administrators have been examining 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.

Much of the review focused on how getting a zero can make it almost mathematically impossible for a student to get a passing grade.

“A power of a zero in a 100-point scale is a killer,” said school board member Tom Benton, a retired principal. “Our kids can’t recover from that.”

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, which resulted in Merrill’s hiring in June. The idea emerged again Tuesday.

Under the revised policy, middle school and high school students would join elementary school students in having separate behavior grades. The traditional grades wouldn’t reflect “academic-related behaviors.”

The guidelines that come with the revised policy would say that students who hand in work late would be guaranteed credit. Administrators haven’t decided yet whether to cap the penalty as low as 10 percent or as high as 30 percent.

The guidelines also say that a student can ask for a retest regardless of the original grade. The higher of the two grades would be recorded.

In the absence of districtwide guidelines, some schools have adopted their own changes, such as not allowing zeros. School administrators said having a districtwide policy would promote consistency among the 170 schools.

“The innovative principals in the district have already done it,” said John Williams, senior director of high school programs. “The results show it is working. The ones who don’t want to be that bold are waiting for that policy.”

Martin disputed the idea that getting rid of zeros would be considered bold. He said he’s not comfortable giving a 50 to a student who doesn’t do any work.

Martin said he agrees that keeping student conduct out of grades in elementary school makes sense. But he said that older students, especially those in high school, should be treated differently.

Martin, an N.C. State chemistry professor, related how as a teacher he sets expectations for students to do their work on time because that’s what they’ll need to do when they enter the workforce.

“Turning in your work is frankly a behavior of your job that you need to do,” he said.

The grading changes will next be discussed at a joint meeting of the board’s policy and student achievement committees Nov. 14.

Hui: 919-829-4534

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