Are Universal Grading Policies Fair to Students?

Students and teachers question the rational behind administrative mandates on gradebooks

Are Universal Grading Policies Fair to Students?

Susan Rose, Head Editor

Grade books have been a key element of schools for hundreds of years, ever since a four-tier grading system was introduced at Harvard University in the 1600s. They let teachers balance assignments between formative and summative assessments and allow students to track how they are doing in classes. The rise of digital grade books also meant that students and parents could get instant updates and feedback on how a grade was progressing.

For the past three years at Frederick High, it has been school policy for teachers to weigh summative assessments (tests, projects, and other assignments that look at the sum total of what students have learned) as 70% of a grade’s value, and formative assessments (anything that is done to help teach students skills or information as part of a learning process) as 30% of a grade’s value. While this directive led many teachers to have only two grading categories (summative and formative), other staff members further divided their grade books. For example, exams and essays are both summative assessments, yet each requires a different set of skills to complete; thus, a teacher might make essays 35% and exams 35%, which together total to the required 70%. This system of subdividing seemed to make everyone happy, from students to parents to teachers.

​Until now.

On January 14, Vice Principal Doug Jackson (who championed bringing the 70-30 system to Frederick) sent all staff communication saying that the subdividing of grade books was to stop and that every class grade book was required to have two and only two categories: assessments and practice. This was compounded by Principal Brian Young sending teachers with subdivided grade books to align to the two-category standard by the end of the day of Friday, January 25.

These communications came at the same time as a student push in the sophomore honors classes to subdivide grade books further than 70-30. Sam Scarberry, one of the leaders behind this push, said “The administration shouldn’t have this much say in our classes. Our teachers are teachers for a reason: they know best how to give assignments and grade assignments.”

Understanding the Divide

A lot of the reasons teachers choose to split up their grade books beyond 70-30 are to fit their teaching style better. For example, Mr. Coon prefers to emphasize grammar in his class, so he makes daily grammar (a formative assessment) 10% and other formative assessments 20%. “Since we complete a grammar exercise every week, that category would be dominated by grammar, and grammar is a big struggle for lots of students,” Mr. Coon told us. “By blocking it off to just that 10%, students can feel that they can try and even sometimes fail at grammar without it wrecking havoc on the rest of their grade. Plus, as the a quarter of the SAT is grammar-based, I can more easily recommend test prep to students that need it.” Sophomore Kayla Lorimer took his class last year and attests that “it really helps to be able to try and fail in an area I’m bad at without it destroying the rest of my grade.” This is one reason why the math department made a commitment earlier this year to subdivide out Khan Academy SAT practice into 10% of the grade to promote skill building outside of class. “If we didn’t divide it out, I don’t think a lot of my kids would do it,” Ms. Stuhr said.

Teachers also subdivide their grade books to make it easier to track student skills. Mr. Rothman, for example, divides his Spanish classes into categories of writing, reading, listening, and speaking. Since each category generates its own percentage, both parents and students can instantly see what skill is in need of improvement. Senior Kendall McCarron told us, “It would be weird to have [Rothman’s] class at just 70-30 because it’s easy to see how you’re doing.” Several teachers also have the final subdivided out as a 10%-20% summative assessment category itself. “For Mass Media, the final is to make a film using everything we’ve learned that’s worth 20% of the grade,” Ms. Ferguson said. “Instead of trying to do all the math or weighting specific assignments, it’s easier for students to understand to just have a 20% category for the six-week long film project.”

Ultimately, everything in a school should serve students, and many students feel like a subdivided grade book does just that.

So why the change?

We don’t know.

“Every year, I have checked my policies with Jackson, and every year he’s been okay with how I split up my grade book,” Mr. Coon said. “Now–in the middle of the year–we have to change. Why?” His frustration is shared by several other teachers in the building, as well as lots of students. “My grade in AP is going to drop hard,” senior Liz Kulesus said. “I suck at taking tests, but in Lit, they’re worth 20% and the essays are worth 50%, and I’m okay at writing. But if they’re put together, I’m going to fail.” Junior Ella Berrend agreed: “I work really hard outside of class on my grades on homework and trying to learn, so it really makes me angry when a single bad test tanks my grade.”

The sophomore honors class is equally livid, as this decision comes on the heels of their push to subdivide their classes. “In some classes, it makes sense because you just have homework and tests,” sophomore Abby Awad told us. “But in other classes there’s homework and vocab and essays and projects… there’s a lot more than goes in, so they should be different. Not all classes are the same. You’re telling me Stats and Yearbook should have the same grading system? That Ironworks is the same as AP Gov?” Chandler Hoel agreed: “My mom is HEATED about this! My grade should be between my teacher and me, not the office!”

These concerns about grades are not unfounded. Two teachers who asked to remain anonymous taught the same exact course using the same assignments, rubrics, and tests last semester. One teacher went by the strict 70/30 division while the other divided their grade book into five, more specific categories. The end result? The 70/30 teacher experienced a higher failure rate, more student frustration, and more parent confusion over why their students were failing.

Teachers and students alike want to know why Mr. Jackson and Mr. Young are pushing this shift now. We found that there is no universal grading policy for the district. An excellent article by our friends at The Mav last year revealed that while Frederick, Niwot, and Silver Creek have a 70/30 policy, Lyons and Erie do not have a consistent policy and Skyline encourages subdividing out the final and other types of large summative assessments. Furthermore, their reporting revealed that further subdivision is allowed at Silver Creek, and that the idea that the 70/30 policy is a district-wide requirement is a myth.

So once again: why change things now?

Answers are sure to come next Monday after school. A group of concerned students will meet with the administration to discuss why they feel requiring the 70/30 split is damaging to students. The event is open to all and will be held at 2:45 in the library. In the words of Kendall McCarron, ​”Teachers know what’s most important in their classes and what should have more weight.”