The Best Laid Plans; More on BCPS Grading Policy 5210

It is rumored that while plowing in the fields back in 1785, poet Robert Burns inadvertently destroyed a mouse nest which inspired his poem “To a Mouse.” This poem, known for “best laid plans of mice and men,” a phrase widely used to describe the inevitability of things not turning out quite as planned, is perhaps more recognizable by the truncated: “best laid plans…”.

There are plans that “go as planned,” plans that don’t, plans that are unexpected and last minute, and sometimes plans you wish you could cancel. Sometimes plans are too grand to accomplish by oneself and very often plans are not planned by oneself.

And that is precisely the question for Baltimore County Public Schools regarding the grading policy change: exactly whose plans are these?

After two December 2016 BCPS grading policy meetings, some new information has come to light regarding the actual order of events, which exposes more clearly how the grading policy plans came to be in BCPS.

The facts:

First, Grading Policy 5210 was drafted by BCPS staff and was approved by the former Board of Education in June 2015, with its implementation delayed until July 2016.  Currently, only five members remain from that board that voted: Ed Gilliss, David Uhlfelder, Chuck McDaniels, Romaine Williams, and Marisol Johnson.  Those five members were present to approve those grading policy plans and proposed changes, which means that seven of the current board members were not.

Next, it is important to note that the Grading Policy Superintendent Rule 5210, which was also drafted by staff and revised on June 9, 2015, effective June 1, 2016, included some different language than the policy, itself.  Each BCPS policy is accompanied by a corresponding Superintendent Rule which is expected to align with the approved policy. It is also important to understand that the board votes on BCPS policies, but does not have the power to vote on its respective Superintendent Rule. This gives the Superintendent the power to implement what the rule states, irrespective of what the policy states.

The difference between the grading policy and rule can be seen by comparing the two: Policy 5210 and Rule 5210. The variance between the two includes the language: “Permissible grade symbols, scales, and procedures used for grades and grade reporting are set forth in the BCPS Grading and Reporting Procedures.”

This is important to note. The Grading and Reporting Procedures Manual, which includes the procedures mentioned in the wording of the change to Rule 5210, further served to remove – yet by another degree — board oversight and input into the actual grading policy, as it continued to evolve through the rewriting by staff.  The board did not vote for that change; it was never part of the policy. Additionally, board approval of this manual is not required and was not sought, despite the changes and the inclusion of the names of all board members on the actual document.

Lastly, what started as a plan, grew into a two-page policy, evolved into a six-page Superintendent Rule, and ultimately materialized into a more detailed 50-page document that was first presented to all principals and other school administrators on June 21, 2016 at their Professional Development meeting.  Teachers and other 10-month employees were gone for the summer when scant professional development was offered, and returned the week of August 17, 2016 during which a 45-minute multi-subject meeting occurred. School commenced on August 24, 2016, which gave teachers one week to read, comprehend, and plan the implementation of BCPS’s new Grading Policy and 50-page manual.

After the extremely rocky and disorienting rollout of this new grading policy, TABCO president Abby Beytin and Bill Lawrence of CASE complained to the board and Dr. Dance about the lack of time teachers and administrators had to comprehend the manual, plan for it and implement it a week after receiving it. This frustration was echoed by the current student board member and by way of parent complaints at meetings, through emails and petitions, as well as coverage in newspaper articles written by neighboring private school leadership, parents and other professionals.

As the grading policy change is occurring across the country, there are additional questions about how the 50-60 member taskforce – called the District Grading Committee – was directed to arrive at such a strangely similar plan to that of other school systems. Strange also is how in sync BCPS seems to be with the grading policy changes written about by organizations such as Competency Works, the brainchild of The International Association of K-12 Online Learning or iNACOL.

Whether planned from within the school system, or a plan inspired from outside of it, this plan has not been the collaborative effort it has been made to seem.

It may have been laid out – and it certainly has plowed through – but its impetus and implementation are questionable. With BCPS vendors and ed-tech organizations ramping up to digitalize students’ curriculum here for STAT, BCPS parents would be wise to inquire about all future plans BCPS leadership has for our school system.


Be aware that although BCPS staff has worked hard to address grading policy concerns, unacceptable issues are still plaguing students.

Parents say that in elementary schools, End-of-Unit assessments, which teachers are pressed to pull together and sometimes put online, can end up being 30% of a student’s grade, or basically Finals for 5th graders, who barely even have time to study.

Some of the online tests are considered “secure,” presumably because they’re going to be used over and over online in subsequent years, and cannot even be seen by parents or students, unlike paper tests which parents signed off on. So there’s no opportunity for students to do actual ‘error analysis’ and learn from their mistakes. If a parent wants to see a test, they need to make a conference with the teacher, cutting into everyone’s time. So these online tests are basically useless to students and parents — it’s all about data collection by schools.  And kids are failing them left and right.

Perhaps even more alarming, a point value on an assignment might double or triple in the BCPS One grade book, as teachers are pressured to hit a new balance of points (outlined in the grading policy addendum) between assignments and quizzes/tests, with assignments being worth more. That is a welcome change. But when an essay worth 25 points is entered as 40 points, and then that grade value is doubled to 80 points after the fact (because the ratios weren’t matching up) that could spell unexpected disaster. That one assignment, if there’s a less-than-stellar outcome, might tank an entire quarter grade–because now it’s suddenly worth 40% of the quarter. Teachers are trying to do their best in what BCPS administrators call a “transition phase,” but this chaos is unfairly lowering grades, deeply affecting students’ “career-and-college-ready” goals, and causing reams of stress for everyone.

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