As Rock Hill schools rethink the way they grade students, officials are bracing for a charged debate.
"It's going to be messy, to say the least," Superintendent Lynn Moody said.
For the last year a group of teachers has been exploring how to standardize grading across the district's five middle schools and three high schools.
Among the questions they've discussed: Should homework figure in a student's final grade? What about class participation? Should cheaters and students who fail be allowed to make up work? Why not let all students re-test for a higher grade?
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The committee drafted rules that two schools - Saluda Trail Middle and South Pointe High - are testing. Based on results at those campuses and feedback from teachers and parents, district leaders will craft a new grading policy which they expect the school board to vote on in March.
The draft emphasizes "mastery" learning, which stresses understanding content and moves away from penalizing students for taking longer to learn.
At South Pointe this year the lowest a student can score on an assignment, even if he doesn't turn it in, is 40 out of 100. A score of 69 or below is an 'F.'
Students caught cheating get referred to the administration and a chance to do the work with a 20 percent penalty.
Homework can account for up to 10 percent of a student's final grade. Any student can take a test twice to improve a grade, so long as the student re-learns the material first. That doesn't apply to standardized tests such as the PASS and the SAT.
"We're piloting it at South Pointe, but not saying, 'We think this is the thing to do,'" Principal Al Leonard said. "Our philosophy was, let's go ahead and dive into it full throttle ... How can we argue it's not a good thing if we haven't tried it?"
In part, school officials say, it's an attempt to streamline what has long been a piecemeal and confusing grading process. Some teachers, for instance, weigh homework more heavily than others. Some figure students' class participation in final grades. Others don't.
Rock Hill schools' Director of Secondary Education Sheila Huckabee recalled a middle school student's parents who were concerned about what they considered miscommunication.
Their son thought he had three days to write an essay and arrived at school on the third day planning to write the final draft only to learn it was due then. He spent the class writing and turned it in. He got a zero.
In a class down the hall, he might have lost points, Huckabee said. Another teacher might have given him full credit.
"That's a problem," she said. "It's stories like that that make me believe we're doing the right thing."
In revamping the grading system, Moody is pushing for a policy which motivates more students to achieve. One way to do that, she says: Drop zeros.
While the score varies, at least a dozen South Carolina school districts have adopted a minimum score that students can't fall below. Some set it at 60. Rock Hill is proposing 40.
Proponents say it stresses learning over grades, ensuring success is never so far out of a student's reach that he gives up.
"A zero shuts down learning," Huckabee said. "We're telling kids, 'You're not walking away with a zero. You've got to show us you know something.' It's higher expectations."
Critics counter it waters down education and sets up students for future failure, when poor performance could cost a job. They say teachers shouldn't be required to give students who slack off a grade they didn't earn.
Similar changes have sparked contentious disputes elsewhere, from Florida to New Jersey and Virginia.
In Texas the backlash against minimum grades was so strong, that the state legislature banned them. Teacher groups there, according to news reports, called such policies the "ultimate grade inflation."
Resistance in Rock Hill has come mostly from teachers, officials said.
"The hardship has been people have to give up some things that they've always done," Huckabee said. "Grades are as personal to teachers as their paycheck."
Members of the 40-teacher grading committee who were reached declined to comment for this story. Several agreed initially but changed their minds after Huckabee requested she be spokesperson for the effort.
Families are starting to catch wind of the possible changes.
"Parents don't know what's going on," said Annette Keller, who's stepson is a junior at Northwestern High. "We're not quick to rush to judgment, but there's a lot of confusion."
Keller, who said she's seen a draft of the grading rules, has questions about re-testing.
"To me, there's that worry about the apathy, that (students) will just slide by until it matters," she said. "College is not like that."
And "will teachers honestly be able to create all these different tests?"
Pros and cons
It's too early in South Pointe's test run to cast judgment, Principal Leonard said. But the school is adjusting.
Kathryn McGregor was baffled earlier this year when her daughter Rebecca, a South Pointe sophomore, considered re-taking a test.
"I said, "What do you mean you don't know if you're going to re-test? You made a 93,'" McGregor said. "My gut feeling was kids ought to study ahead of time and (re-testing) was just upping students' grades."
After Huckabee explained the district's intent, McGregor is more open to the changes.
"It sounds counterintuitive when you first hear it," she said. But "if giving them a chance makes them motivated ... that's valuable, if kids take advantage of it."
For Rebecca, a 15-year-old honors student, there are pros and cons.
Re-testing "is good because it doesn't limit people," she said. "I can decide for myself. If you're really set on that higher grade, you will do the extra work."
Recently, though, when half the students in one of her classes struggled with a test, the teacher spent a day re-teaching and a substitute spent another day re-testing.
Rebecca, who aced it the first time, and high-scoring classmates played cards.
"It's kind of disappointing to sit through the re-test," she said.
Officials are beginning to go public with their plans.
Huckabee has scheduled several meetings with parents and will explain the vision and process to the school board at a December meeting.
Board members have concerns too.
"There are some things in (the draft) I can agree with and some things I don't," school board member Jim Vining said. "It makes sense to me not to give zeros."
But in regard to re-testing, "At some point they should be held accountable for turning things in on time. We have to prepare them for the real world and the real world doesn't work like that."
School board member Walter Brown agrees.
"The current grading policy we have is a defined path," he said. "You know that if you go in and don't do your work, you're not going to pass. If forces students to take responsibility."
While she has questions, school board member Ginny Moe applauds the district's efforts.
"There are good reasons to make these changes," she said. "There's not a grading policy that's going to motivate every kid, but you ought to be open to all kinds of changes.
"It's a great sea change for most of us who grew up taking one test, getting that grade and moving on. Just because we did it that way doesn't mean it's the only way to do it."
Want to learn more?
Rock Hill school officials plan to meet with families to discuss plans to revamp the way students are graded. Anyone can attend. The first three meetings scheduled:
Nov. 30: 5:30 p.m. at Rock Hill High, 320 W. Springdale Road.
Nov. 30: 7 p.m. at Sullivan Middle, 1825 Eden Terrace.
Dec. 1: 6:30 p.m. at Northwestern High, 2503 W. Main Street.
Officials will present their plans at a public school board meeting at 5:30 p.m. Dec. 13 at the district office, 660 N. Anderson Road.