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ASPEN removes teacher discretion over grades*

DCPS announced its new policy for calculating final grades in the Aspen grading system this month. According to this policy, teachers can assign students grades from A to F, which are recalculated into numerical values using the midpoint of the letter grade range.

The new policy is just one part of a continuing trend in DCPS that values numbers and statistics over student learning. If a student gets a C and a D in two advisories, they can get a 0 in the next two and still end the course with a passing D grade. This grade inflation doesn’t help anyone involved, but it’s especially detrimental to students who are taking cumulative courses like math or a language. Students who artificially pass a class enter the next year with a huge disadvantage; there’s no way you can understand Algebra II if you didn’t learn the material in Algebra I. It may seem like DCPS is helping students by making it easier to pass classes, but in the end all it does is set them up for failure.

The district’s obsession with numbers doesn’t promote the desire to learn. We leave Wilson knowing less about the War of 1812 or the quadratic formula, and more about how to cheat the system. Many of us have calculated exactly how much homework we need to do to pass a class, or haven’t done a worksheet when it doesn’t have a significant impact on our grade. As students, it seems like we’re expected to have some deep-seated passion for learning; teachers get mad when we ask “Is this going to be on the test?” or share homework answers with friends in other classes. Because the current metric for grading seems to enhance/inflate student grades at the low end of the scale, the message students receive is “higher grades at all costs,” yet teachers are appalled when students turn to cheating. (See page 6 for more on student cheating.)

The policy also discourages students who are working hard in a class but still end up with a failing grade. Why work hard to make up work and earn a 63 percent when under this system both a 63 and a zero are converted to a 59? And this policy isn’t just unfair to students: it might even go against union rights for teachers. The Washington Teacher Union contract states that teachers must have full discretion over the evaluation of the student, including their grade. It also says that “In no case shall a grade be changed by the Supervisor or the Chancellor or his/her designee, unless the Teacher fails to adhere to the provisions above.” DCPS didn’t consult the Teacher Union before announcing the new policy, which removes teachers’ final discretion over cumulative grades.

In a letter to teachers, DCPS said that they would evaluate the effectiveness of the new system at the end of the year to determine whether it would be feasible to instead have the teachers themselves enter in numerical grade values. We fully support this measure; teachers should have final discretion over their students’ grades, because they are the ones who know their students as more than a number. Where the central office only sees an F or a D, teachers see kids who consistently come in after school for help, or are struggling with health issues, or test badly but always do their homework. Changing the software to better reflect student achievement by empowering teachers to input final grades directly would be a step in the right direction toward humanizing the grading system. •


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