As Metro schools adjust to an assortment of changes in how they teach, measure and evaluate education, the school district is taking on another controversial reform: how it grades students.
Beginning this year, teachers at Metro Nashville Public Schools will bring into play a new rubric that cuts out the bottom half of the grading scale. Students will no longer come home with scores below 50 percent on anything — whether it’s an exam, a quiz or missing homework.
The policy — which district middle school teachers have used for the past year — is stirring up concern among parents and teachers who argue the shift will coddle students by inflating their grades.
But education experts in and outside of MNPS argue the changes will focus attention on measuring whether students grasp the material, not on whether they turn homework in on time.
“There’s a big difference there between earning something and learning something,” said Amy Downey, the executive lead principal supervising middle schools who introduced the idea as a pilot program to 150 middle school teachers two years ago.
“Grading is a communication tool, and that is always what it was intended for. It just matriculated over the years into a system it was never supposed to, incorporating a lot of qualities about a person,” she said.
The change sets up a new point of conflict in a district that has been fraught with controversy over the past year. Tensions that have roiled MNPS range from drafting the next school calendar after last year’s sparsely attended intersession breaks, to conflicts at the board and district level over what role charter schools should play.
Despite those strains, the district’s top leaders voted this summer to extend the middle school grading policy to all grade levels.
Teachers are now required to give students multiple chances to demonstrate they understand the material, such as through retakes on exams. Zeros for failing to turn in work are gone, as are extra-credit assignments to boost a grade, although teachers must allow students more time to finish the assignment, according to the new policy. Students may still earn an “incomplete” for failing to finish a course.
“A lot of kids need practice, like you do in sports or music. Eventually you master that skill, so that’s what it’s about,” said Jay Steele, the district’s chief academic officer, who said the demand for a new grading scale came from high school principals.
“I don’t want to look at it as a zero to 100 scale, because it’s not that. It’s a 50 to 100, so kids can still make A’s, B’s, C’s, D’s and F’s. It does not affect the top students. They’re still going to make their A’s,” he said, adding he does not see the changes as an effort to boost the graduation rate, which this year is up two percentage points to 78.4 percent.
“Kids who are going to fail are still failing,” said Steele. “But our goal is to remediate those students and give them opportunities to get those higher grades. I don’t think it will affect the graduation rate. I think it might affect students’ GPAs a little bit better, but it’s not going to change the trajectory of a kid graduating or not graduating.”
Critics argue the changes amount to grade inflation.
“It will certainly have the impact of causing more students to graduate. I think that was really part of the intent, to make more students eligible to pass at the end of the semester or get credit at the end of the year,” said Erick Huth, vice president of Metropolitan Nashville Education Association, which represents teachers.
The teachers union was expected to meet Thursday to decide whether to take a position on the issue, which Huth predicted would be in opposition to “grade inflation and de-professionalizing of teaching.
“You have a policy that basically says the teacher does not have the discretion of assigning a grade between 0 and 49. Any grade that is raised to a 50 is essentially one achieved by policy and not by holding students accountable to the standards,” he said.
On message boards and social media, it’s apparent that parents have mixed feelings about the changes, including dozens of people who have commented on West Nashville school board member Amy Frogge’s Facebook page, asking her to look into the issue.
“This particular policy caught my attention, especially after I heard complaints about its implementation in middle schools last year, and after all this feedback, I have decided to ask some questions,” she told supporters on her page. She declined to comment further to The City Paper and said she was still examining the issue.
Jill Speering, a school board member from Madison with 35 years of teaching experience behind her, said she’s “excited” about the changes.
“A student who gets one zero maybe for a late assignment, it’s devastating,” she said. “I think it will serve as an impetus for students to continue the learning process, because if you don’t understand something, it doesn’t mean you’ll have such a low grade.”
The idea is hard for some people to accept, especially because most parents and teachers grew up with 100-point scales that average out students’ grades, said Hank Staggs, director of educational leadership and off-campus programs at Lipscomb University.
The current system measures students’ struggles understanding the material, instead of measuring their ultimate mastery of it, he said. The closer the link between students’ grades and their understanding of material, the better prepared students and parents can be to figure out what trouble areas students need to focus on.
Staggs helped implement a similar grading mechanism in the Franklin Special School District, where elementary students there were evaluated on individual standards, a policy that was also initially met with resistance.
“There are a lot of seasoned teachers who are comfortable with how they have graded in the past. It’s changed in Tennessee. We’re seeing a lot of change,” he said.
“Everybody 25 years old and up has only known a system where we had A, B, C, D, F, and their grades were averaged from a zero to 100 scale, and that’s just how we grew up. Anything different is change and something that we don’t really understand.”