The following is from the Sept. 3, 2008, edition of The Dallas Morning News.
Imagine what it would look like if every child in Texas destined to drop out of school left at once. Since as many as 50 percent of the students who enter Texas public schools never get a diploma, it would look like the disaster it is.
Dallas Independent School District leaders recently developed a grading and homework policy aimed to increase the likelihood that more students stay in school, where they have access to teachers, peers and support that can brighten their future. The public outcry started immediately, but I am in DISD's camp.
• New DISD Grading Policy (pdf)
• Dallas Morning News: Dallas
schools plan to ease grading
standards angers teachers
• Dallas Morning News: Dallas ISD
defends changes in grading policy
This policy, though untraditional, is a laudable attempt to prevent students from dropping out of school. District officials know that once students are gone, teachers are no longer able to provide the kind of instruction and resources necessary to help them become productive members of society.
With each student who drops out, there are direct and indirect consequences. For the school district and taxpayers, there is no payoff on the significant, though incomplete, investment made to educate the student. The personal consequences for the student are dire: The likelihood of finding gainful employment is greatly reduced, and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates a dropout's annual income will be limited to about $20,000 if he does find work. Failure to graduate from high school is associated with crime, delinquency, drug abuse and suicide – and may cost society up to $500,000 per student. Overall, the costs to the individual and society can be staggering.
Based on recent research into student motivation and teacher effectiveness, DISD officials have outlined a policy that focuses on a systemic approach to grading and assessment. In a district as large and diverse as DISD, standardizing procedures for grading and assessment helps ensure fairness, increases the reliability of information gathered through assessments and increases the likelihood that grades are not arbitrary.
Among other aspects, the policy includes:
•Making homework more manageable by standardizing the time spent on homework and, therefore, increasing the chances that students will get it done.
•Standardizing treatment of homework and grading to make it more predictable across classes and grades.
•Increasing the frequency that students are graded per week on class work and homework to assure that students and parents are aware of their performance and progress.
•Standardizing the frequency of tests students have to take to ensure continuity of assessment and informed instruction.
Yet, grading policies alone will not result in the student achievement Superintendent Michael Hinojosa established as the district's laudable goal.
For example, preparing DISD students to do the work expected of them in high school and college means elementary and middle school students must receive evidence-based instruction delivered by highly qualified teachers. These teachers must be culturally responsive, invested in the success of their school and committed to elevating the achievement of students in the early grades.
Let's define early achievement: It means making sure students can read and communicate effectively, think critically and reason mathematically. As a result, they will see themselves as learners and will be less distracted by forces outside the school.
Leading a large school district like DISD is difficult work. It is complicated by the fact that public educators are entrusted with the lives of other people's children and are expected to efficiently and effectively support their academic and social success. DISD's grading and assessment policy was thoughtfully tailored to achieve greater student retention, and it deserves public support.
Given that traditional approaches have not been successful, this policy should be implemented and carefully evaluated to determine its effectiveness. As a veteran educator and Dallas resident, I am impressed by the progress DISD has demonstrated in the past year, and I am hopeful that DISD leadership has charted a course that will result in continued growth.
David J. Chard is dean of Southern Methodist University's Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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