Op-ed: What’s behind BCPS’ new grading policy?
Posted by Buzz Beeler on 22nd January 2017

October 24, 2016 12:44 pm ET

From guest writer, Joanne C. Simpson

Source: Op-ed: What’s behind BCPS’ new grading policy?

Photo credit/BCPS

This Op-ed piece appeared in the Towson Flyer. I am going to republish it –with permission– in my column in order that readers understand a groundswell of discontent with the agenda of Superintendent Dallas Dance and his BCPS grading policy.


Op-ed: What’s behind BCPS’ new grading policy?

By Joanne C. Simpson

Anyone wondering where this grading policy–homework not counted, no grades lower than 50 points, ‘competency-based’ goals–originates?

Definitely not just from thoughtful internal focus groups.

Try organizations funded by education technology-related companies such as Discovery Education, Follett, Microsoft or SAFARI Montage–all doing business with Baltimore County Public Schools.

Looks like we should be asking broader questions about the big picture here. BCPS administrators are currently reviewing the policy, and a district grading steering committee is set to discuss possible revisions on Monday, Oct. 24.

Overall, STAT is apparently where it’s ‘at.’


1). In a June 2016 BCPS report, the administration lists “conversions” needed to support the laptop-per-student digital initiative whose full moniker is Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow. Under the plan’s “Assessment Conversion,” cited beneath a chart showing the device rollout schedule, “policies related to curriculum and assessment have been revised to support these shifts, including Policy and Rule 5210 to transform grading and reporting,” acc. to the STAT Biannual Conversions Update.

So, the grading shift has a lot to do with the so-called “24-7 digital ecosystem” experiment? Anyone wonder whether their kids are digital-based–a zero or a one?

If this policy is part of future ongoing computer-based assessments under STAT, (i.e. more screen time) why isn’t that being told to parents? Why is it not outlined in the grading policy?

2). According to BCPS Superintendent Dr. Dallas Dance and numerous teachers, this policy was based partly on a book titled “Grading Smarter, Not Harder,” by a vice principal in Canada. It is published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, or ASCD. In fact, ASCD’s research is cited often in the BCPS Grading Policy source list. https://www.bcps.org/academics/grading/Grading-and-Reporting-Procedures.pdf

Here are the group’s donors, a good number of which are education technology companies, several with multi-million dollar contracts to provide BCPS software, etc. ASCD Donors http://www.ascd.org/about-ascd/sponsorship/current-sponsors.aspx

Who then does this new “assessment” approach really serve?

3). The grading policy was supposed to be phased in over time, as Dr. Dance told a BCPS high school newspaper as late as March 2016. (Though that doesn’t seem to be happening). Dr. Dance also urged teachers and others to read “Grading Smarter, Not Harder” by Myron Dueck “in advance of grading changes.” And here’s the author at a standards-based conference, in a session titled “What Are We Supposed to Do About Homework?”


The grading scenario this fall, meanwhile, has been a roller coaster for BCPS students and teachers, with concerns documented widely in local social media. Is this really Grading Smarter?

4). Also, if this grading approach–which does have some positive elements if used selectively–is actually much bigger than Baltimore County, what’s happening in other districts?

Hmmm. There’s lots of similar language linked to policies ‘recommended by’ other internal focus groups, mostly in school districts where “digital learning” and online or computer-based ‘competency’ assessments–think badges and ongoing tests like MAP–have been in place, or have quickly followed suit.

Here, for comparison, is language about the origins of BCPS’s policy, from Superintendent Dance in his Sept. Baltimore Sun op-ed:


“This approach to grading achievement and using a rubric to grade conduct is the result of two years of study, preparation and feedback involving all facets of Team BCPS — teachers, school and system leaders, students, advisory councils, and members of the teachers’ and administrators’ bargaining units. In 2014, BCPS convened the District Grading Committee to review Board Policy 5210 on Grading and Reporting, which had not been updated since 1997. The committee recommended updates based on their analysis of current research and practices.”


Here are just a few of many district descriptions about how internal focus groups arrived at — voila — the same new grading policy! (I’m sure the participants worked very hard of course. Yet outside influences are also indicated by the time it gets to the district level.)

In Prince George’s County, MD, which considered the no-lower-than-50 points this past summer, an administrator told the board “that the recommendations come after a year of “robust” discussions between parents, administrators and educators, and that the proposals are aligned with national best practices and supported by educational research.”


The same goes for Orange County, Florida, and districts in Maine, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and other states. In Boise, Idaho, schools adopted a similar grading policy in July, with the following words: “Focus groups from each of the schools in the Boise School District consisting of students and their parents have been used to see how beneficial this policy change would be.” http://www.ktvb.com/news/education/boise-school-district-makes-changes-to-its-grading-policy/277181845

Scarcely a month after the policy was approved, the Idaho school district rolled out laptops for high school students. https://thejournal.com/articles/2016/08/17/idaho-school-district-issues-laptops-to-high-school-students.aspx?m=2

Do these district focus groups–mostly made up of teachers, parents, principals, and other stakeholders–get together for a national conference that offers such phraseology? Especially those gigs that feature all those cocktail parties like the Digital Promise-BCPS (a co-sponsor!) summit coming up in early November in Baltimore. I’m thinking not.

Lastly. 5). No matter what happens with this currently chaotic grading policy, looks like we should keep an eye out for what will happen next… and make sure there’s transparency from the school administration on just what all of the positive-sounding language actually means for our children, as well as the taxpayers funding this $300 million-plus digital initiative.

Take a look at the goals of the edtech-based organization, iNACOL, which awards a lot of those district tech awards, and sponsors a “Competency Works” site prominently featuring what amounts to the BCPS grading policy.


See this quote; Sound familiar?

“As a way of illustrating the difference between traditional and competency-based learning, teachers describe homework and classwork as a means to build skill and practice, but do not count homework or seat time as part of the assessment equation. At certain points in a trimester, students are given assessments in each content area as an opportunity to demonstrate their skill level.”

Do we really want the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) to determine a brick-and-mortar public school grading policy?

Sadly, I’m hearing from teachers that 60 percent at BCPS is considered “competency.” Essentially a D grade. Is this really what we want for our children? For them to be “competent.” Or, in other ‘personalized learning’ edtech lingo, “standard” or “proficient?” Our students can aim much higher than this. And so can we.

Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer for The Miami Herald, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine. She is a BCPS parent, college educator, and freelance

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