School Board ponders grading changes

School Board ponders grading changes
The Aug. 25 School Board meeting included a discussion about potential changes to the ACPS grading policy as well as Hutchings’ farewell. (Photo/School Board meeting via Zoom)

By Olivia Anderson |

The Alexandria School Board discussed the future of Alexandria City Public Schools’ grading policy – but ultimately tabled a proposed measure – and heard from outgoing Superintendent Gregory Hutchings, Ed.D., at a special School Board meeting on Aug. 25.

Hutchings, whose last day as superintendent was yesterday, thanked the board for the opportunity to serve. He also commended staff and faculty, particularly for their dedication through the COVID-19 pandemic, and acknowledged his former teachers for impacting his future career path. Hutchings went to ACPS schools and is a current resident of the city.

“This really is my dream job, this is the job I always strived to have one day, and for me to be able to have the opportunity to serve the community [that helped] me become the person I am is simply amazing,” Hutchings said.

He also expressed gratitude for the City of Alexandria as a whole, which he referred to as “very special.”

“I can gripe about some things in this community, but that is not our entire community. We have a community that is not only diverse, but we are progressive, we are forward-thinking, we are openminded, we are willing to try things differently, and we come together when we need to come together,” Hutchings said. “That is something I am very proud of.”

The board also discussed possible revisions to the district’s grading policy. Although the current policy has structures in place for students falling behind, it does not address how to handle students who simply do not complete coursework. The proposed policy includes big-picture ways to respond to this issue, but specific details would need to be implemented at a later date.

“Almost all the changes in the policy are around putting in high-level structures to support that and begin to create those systems for how we respond when students do not complete their work,” Matt Smith, a policy services consultant for ACPS, said at the meeting.

Proposed revisions include removing the temporary COVID-19 provisions; removing class rank; an emphasis that grades reflect mastery of course standards and not student behaviors; a provision that grades should reflect work completed in class; standardized weighting of formative (40%) and summative (60%) assessments when calculating grades; and a provision that a missed assignment is an absence of data on student knowledge and skills on a topic, while a zero means the student has no knowledge or skills on a topic.

The latter idea stresses that educators do not receive data on whether a student achieved mastery of content if they do not turn in an assignment.

“[Teachers have] no information, and calculating any sort of a grade, be it a 0, be it a 50, be it whatever, is actually statistically invalid,” Smith said. “… What we’re saying is that if a teacher doesn’t have data, they should indicate that in the grade book.”

Instead of giving the student a zero on a missed assignment, the proposed grading policy would indicate that teachers should assist students in completing the work to help them learn, grow and provide accurate data sets in order to ultimately produce a proper assessment.

One of the biggest changes to the policy, Smith said, is that schools would be required to create systematic supports at the school level for students who miss assignments, rather than relying solely on teachers to do so.

Staff received many questions about the potential implications of changing this policy, such as if students would only have to turn in assignments when they choose to and not face repercussions.

While Smith said he doesn’t imagine that would be the case, the specifics of the updates still need to be ironed out.

“The teacher, when they provide the grade, is supposed to reflect that summary or that mastery of content, but that’s not necessarily a direct mathematical calculated algorithm. Teachers are going to have to do some interpretations around those things if they have sufficient data to do that,” Smith said. “… The details about that still need to be developed, and that needs to happen in conversations with teachers, school administrators and central office folks.”

Staff also received complaints regarding the provision that grades should reflect work completed in class, with many asserting the value of homework.

For example, student representative Emily Milton shared concerns that not grading homework assignments would place more pressure on in-class assignments – which could prove harmful to students with test anxiety – as well as leave them ill-equipped for college and other post-secondary plans.

“They [won’t be] prepared for the workload that college will bring to them if they are taught that outside of school work is just practice, because they will have to turn that in in college, probably, and then they won’t know how to do that,” Milton said.

But Smith emphasized that different students have different experiences; some environments are conducive to completing homework and others are not.

“That’s the core of equity is ensuring that those students who may not be in a situation [that is] supportive of getting the academics completed outside of school hours are not put at a disadvantage because of that,” Smith said. “What we’re trying to do here with this concept is balance that need for additional time, additional practice, the fact that learning to complete your work is a life lesson … [while] simultaneously acknowledging the fact that for some of our kids, that’s just simply harder because of the environments they have outside of school.”

The new policy would allow teachers to assign, collect and assess homework, but the actual grade would only reflect work completed in the classroom.

Chair Meagan Alderton expressed support for the changes, encouraging educators to reflect on flaws of the current education system and opportunities for improvement.

“It’s really important for us as educators to remember that we are pawns of the institutions that gave us our education. So all the things we know and believe to be right and correct and true, I think we have to acknowledge that we learn those in a system that was designed to be oppressive, particularly to people of color,” Alderton said.

During a lengthy deliberation, Board Member Ashley Simpson Baird said she was initially excited about the grading policy changes because of the emphasis on equity, but after talking with educators who will be tasked with implementing the changes, it became clear that more conversations should be had prior to approving the revisions.

Many educators expressed frustration at not being included in discussions about the proposed changes, she said.

“Their responses made it so clear to me that we are just not there yet. We have not done the work to bring people along so that they understand how this is so inherently rooted in everything that we’re trying to do,” Baird explained. “That, coupled with the fact that … this is the fourth day of a new school year … I just feel like we are not there yet.”

Hutchings highlighted that whatever decision the board makes is not set in stone just yet.

“Whatever the board does today, this is not an end all be all. This is something that is going to evolve over time,” Hutchings said. “… It’s trying to have just some base line to start with and allow for this upcoming year to really monitor how this works and continue to have the grading committee work through this as well as teachers providing feedback at that point on what is happening with students with these revised policies that are in place.”

Ultimately, the board opted to table the homework grading discussion and return to it at a later date, likely for the following school year.

Baird made a motion, with Board Member Kelly Carmichael Booz seconding, to adopt policy IKC as is and for regulation IKC-R to keep the November 2021 version but strike language specific to school year 2021-22, add in revised language on class rank and add in the 60/40 breakdown between summative and formative assessment. It passed 7 to 1, with Vice Chair Jacinta Greene dissenting.

Then, Board Member Michelle Rief made a motion, with Baird seconding, to change the wording of the high school credit course from averaging the “final exam” to the “final summative assessment.” It passed unanimously.