Parents criticize grading guidelines in schools

Concern and questions from parents over grading policies in Virginia Beach Public Schools are growing as the district prepares to host a community forum Thursday on the issue.

A primary concern is that schools are removing accountability from their grading policies by not docking scores for late work.

A Facebook community page titled “VB Schools Grading Policy Concerns” had 282 likes as of Tuesday, while a related online petition to “stop unfair grading policies” in Virginia Beach schools had more than 380 signatures. Both were created by Vicky Manning, a parent who became concerned after she read an October 2014 newsletter from her son’s school, Kemps Landing/Old Donation. She has created a website to share her and other parents’ views.

Manning said she questioned some of the policies in the newsletter from her son’s school, including:

  • “Grades are based on the standards only. Extraneous factors such as neatness, effort, and timeliness are not considered part of the grade, but they should be part of the feedback teachers provide to students so they may develop these important skills.”
  • “Since grades represent a measurement of where students are in their mastery of the standards, if a student does not complete an assignment, there is no way to assign a grade including a zero.”

Manning, who said she strongly opposes those policies, is on a committee of teachers, administrators, parents and students that has been tasked with reviewing the grading situation across the district. The 33-member group, called the Fair and Equitable Grading Practices Committee, is hosting the forum Thursday at Princess Anne Middle School.

Stacey Lawlor, the mother of twin students at Cox High School and a former Virginia Beach teacher, said she learned about the event last week from one of her sons’ teachers. She has supported the Facebook page and petition that Manning started.

Both parents said they believe the guidelines they’ve seen are examples of standards-based grading — a system used in elementary schools — popping up in middle and high schools. The school district denies that is happening.

“[The district is] just trying things out on a group of students – these are my kids, these are other people’s kids,” Lawlor said.

Daniel Smith, the principal at Princess Anne High School and a member of the Fair and Equitable Grading Practices Committee, has implemented some of the guidelines at his school. Students on his student advisory board told him they appreciated the changes, which grade students more accurately, he said.

“We really want to make sure our grades are communicating to adults, whether parents or colleges, what a kid knows and is able to do,” Smith said.

Shawna Gugel, another parent critical of the removal of zeros and the lack of penalties for late work, said such policies will hurt students down the road. She has two daughters at Kemps Landing/Old Donation.

“We’re setting our kids up for failure or disappointment,” she said.

Gugel said she and her husband have discussed removing their daughters from their public school and sending them to private school or homeschooling them.

Manning first posted about the issue on her website in April, a few days after the School Board received a presentation on “Fair and Equitable Grading Practices” at its March 31 meeting.

At that meeting, George Parker, then the assistant superintendent for high schools, reviewed some of the guidelines from a district document titled “Grading and Reporting Student Progress: Information for Parents and Students” that covered the use of zeros, grading late work and handling homework.

Some School Board members questioned the implementation of the policies, saying it seemed secretive. Board members also said parents asked them if some schools were being used as pilot programs to test the changes.

Parker denied that schools were being treated as pilot cases; he referred to implementation of the guidelines as “site-based,” which explains why the policies vary among schools, he said, according to video of the meeting.

Manning said her son’s habits changed because teachers could no longer enforce deadlines as a result of the policy change that didn’t let them penalize students for late work. That was one of the reasons she pulled her children from the school system and began homeschooling them last month, she said.

Lawlor said she believes the guidelines make it harder for teachers to understand what their students are learning.

“I think it’s ineffectual – did they just not want to do it or did they just not understand the material?” she said. “What do you do in the classroom if 10 kids didn’t come in with their stuff and 10 kids did?”

Carolyn Rye, a School Board member and a board liaison to the grading committee, said her goal is to establish accurate grading policies.

“What does a grade represent?” she asked. “What is the purpose of the grade? Is it strictly knowledge or should there be some accountability counted in?”

Rye said those questions have to be at the center of what the committee recommends to the School Board in the spring. Both Rye and Smith believe the forum Thursday will provide information and give parents the opportunity to voice their opinions.

The event will include a presentation from Thomas Guskey, a professor from the University of Kentucky who is a nationally-recognized expert on grading. Guskey is being paid $11,500 for his services, according to the school district. Smith said Guskey will help them have a better conversation about grading and give attendees a better understanding of the purpose of grades.

The forum is scheduled to run from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.

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