The El Paso school board this week dumped a controversial policy of requiring teachers to give automatic grades of 50 percent to students who didn't earn them, the El Paso Times reported. The Texas affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers immediately cheered the move as a "victory for honest grades" and for that district's teachers union, which threatened to sue the system after "foot-dragging" from its superintendent in changing the policy.
Trouble is, one wonders if anything will really change in the classroom, as the new El Paso policy is larded with caveats.
The changes in El Paso stemmed from a new state law that attempted to end the grade-giving practice statewide, but which left confusion over whether the prohibition applied only to individual assignments or whole marking periods. And that sparked a lawsuit last month by five school systems: Fort Bend, Aldine, Klein, Alief, Anahuac and Clear Creek.
So has El Paso embraced honest grades? Well, that depends. The new policy no longer requires teachers to give free grades to students who do little or nothing — but it allows it, at teacher discretion. Failing grades can be boosted through such squishy measures as "effort" and "extenuating circumstances," the Times wrote.
Second, according to the Times piece, teachers who actually give a student a grade lower than the 50 percent mark in any given marking period to "develop a reasonable plan for that student to succeed." Think about that: If a students does, say, 20 percent of the work and a teacher wants to give him, uh, a 20 instead of the gratis 50, then the teacher signs up for all kinds of extra headaches: Write a plan for the student to make it up; grade all the extra work — after, of course, already having worked to light the intellectual fire under the ne'er-do-well in question.
So the incentive here, then, seems to encourage just giving the kid the 50 percent. Less work for both student and teacher, and probably fewer complaints from parents, too. And failure is failure, right? Does it really matter?
Nuances aside, two schools of thought stand in perpetual conflict. One argues giving students a "zero" or another very low grade, either on assignments on entire marking periods, makes it impossible, mathematically, for them to catch up, even with stellar work. So students give up, which helps no one. The other philosophy holds that a grade is a grade is a grade, and giving grades away devalues the real work of all students.
Ultimately, the whole exercise may be academic. After all, teaching happens in classrooms — not school board meetings, not courtrooms, not the Capitol. And, after all, does absolute truth even exist in the inherently subjective realm of grading? Once teachers close their classroom doors, they can manipulate the grading system, the work load, and the level of rigor in a thousand ways, large and small. Students on the bubble would be wise to remember who controls their fate.