Attendance concerns prompt renewed focus on grading policy

Ellida Parker and Adin McGurk

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Nearly halfway into the school year, DCPS is mandating the enforcement of a grading policy requiring that teachers count unexcused absences against student’s grades. Five unexcused absences in a class will result in a grade reduction of one letter, ten will result in a failing grade for the advisory and 30 will results in failure of the course for the year.

This rule isn’t new: it is imbedded in a DCPS-wide grading policy that has been in place for two full school years. When this policy was announced in 2015, Principal Martin interpreted the attendance rules as optional. In her view, they gave teachers the right to lower grades based on attendance, but didn’t make it mandatory. But a recent scandal at Ballou High School brought public attention to attendance, and DCPS responded by emphasizing mandatory adherence to the policy.

Last month, an NPR investigation found that in 2017, Ballou High School graduated students who did not meet graduation requirements: many had upwards of 30 absences, despite the fact that 30 absences technically warrants a failing grade.

As a part of their response to the scandal, DCPS officials instructed high school principals to remind parents, students, and teachers of the attendance rules. Teachers will now be required to reduce grades in response to poor attendance, regardless of their personal views on the policy. Martin herself does not have a say in the decision to enforce the policy. “I have to figure out the exact right approach to implementing something that I know has a lot of challenges associated with it, and without being insubordinate to my employer,” said Martin.

The lack of clarity surrounding such sudden enforcement of the policy has left Wilson’s students and staff mostly in the dark as to how they will be impacted. Questions abounded at Monday’s mandatory staff meeting, where teachers were able to voice their concerns directly to Principal Martin. Martin had little information to beyond what was given on the Powerpoint she was told to present, and she was left waiting on answers from the Chancellor’s office to address the disquiets of the staff.

Dani Moore, an AP Biology and Environmental Science teacher, is not opposed to the policy itself but to the manner in which it was implemented. “I’m concerned about the reactionary nature of this particular initiative. I think we’re responding to a perception rather than solving a problem,” she said. “A policy only works when it’s clear. Right now I think we’re all operating in panic mode: nobody is really sure what is real. What are we actually serious about doing?”

This was a common sentiment among teachers following the meeting. History and ESL teacher Jonathan Shea sees the sudden effectuation of the policy as an overcorrection from the intense emphasis DCPS has been placing on raising graduation rates. “They basically told everyone that the thing they cared most about was graduation rate, so everyone was focusing on getting people to graduate and they weren’t focusing on this policy that says you have to fail people for being absent a certain number of times,” explained Shea. “In a way DCPS created this problem themselves. They incentivised us to behave certain ways, and now they’re telling us that’s wrong.”

Retroactive enforcement of the policy will be in place for second advisory, meaning that any unexcused absences that students currently have will be held against their grade. This could be detrimental for students who accumulated unexcused absences before they knew how severely it could affect their grade. “I don’t know what you do with a student who knows half way through the second advisory that they’ve already officially failed the course for the whole year. What are they supposed to do? Should they go to class knowing they have no chance of passing?,” questioned Shea.

Shea added that strict enforcement of the policy would not allow wiggle room for students who complete class assignments but have circumstances that limit their ability to regularly attend class, leaving students whose economic status forces them to work part or full time jobs throughout high school to be particularly affected by this change. “Socio-economic status is going to be the biggest factor in this. There are students who have to miss class because they have to work,” said Shea.

Michele Bollinger, a social studies teacher, agreed that the policy does not consider the wide range of students and circumstances in any school. “Kids should be in school. But in certain cases, kids can make up work and still accomplish a lot, and teachers should be given the freedom to use their best judgement. I don’t think any one size fits all policy is all that useful in a community as big and diverse as ours.” •