Calling for consistency, Memphis leaders create new student grading rules that are the same across the district

With so many students transferring between schools during the school year, Shelby County Schools is rolling out a new uniform grading policy across the district to ensure consistency.

The new rules mean tests will account for 40% of a high school student’s grade, classwork 35%, projects 10%, homework 10%, and class participation 5%. And it will be the same whether it’s an algebra class in Whitehaven or a biology class in Frayser.

This way, parents will be able to know how a student’s grade is calculated before enrolling their child in any district-managed school. School leaders hope the new system will reflect comparable performance no matter where a student is enrolled.

Large school districts in Dallas and Prince George’s County, Maryland, for example, spell out how much weight assignments have on a student’s grade — though both put about half the emphasis on tests when compared to Memphis.

Angela Whitelaw speaks at a panel event in October 2018. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Angela Whitelaw, the district’s deputy superintendent of schools and academic support, said the change is coming later than the district would have liked because officials convened principals, teachers, and union leaders before finalizing the rules. School started August 12, two weeks ago.

“We wanted to make sure that we had principal buy-in, teacher buy-in, so that takes time,” Whitelaw said. “It’s not a top-down decision. Really it was a cross-collaborative team decision about what it should look like.”

Memphis school leaders often struggle to acclimate students who may change schools once or more during the school year, so Whitelaw said uniform rules would help.

“We also wanted to ensure if a student transfers from one high school to another high school, that we had some consistency,” she said.

Below are the new rules for each nine-week grading period:

Elementary School

  • Homework: 5% (minimum four grades)
  • Class Participation: 5% (minimum four grades)
  • Classwork: 40% (minimum four grades)
  • Projects, portfolios, or presentations: 5% (minimum one grade)
  • Tests: 45% (minimum four grades)

Middle School

  • Homework: 10% (minimum four grades)
  • Class Participation: 5% (minimum four grades)
  • Classwork: 40% (minimum four grades)
  • Projects, portfolios, or presentations: 5% (minimum one grade)
  • Tests: 40% (minimum four grades)

High School

  • Homework: 10% (minimum four grades)
  • Class Participation: 5% (minimum four grades)
  • Classwork: 35% (minimum four grades)
  • Projects, portfolios, or presentations: 10% (minimum one grade)
  • Tests: 40% (minimum four grades)

Note: For semester grades, the two nine-week quarter grades count as 85% and the final semester examination counts as 15%. If a student is enrolled in a dual enrollment or Advanced Placement courses for college credit, existing agreements with those higher education institutions will supersede the district’s grading protocol. Source: Shelby County Schools

The percentages vary slightly for each grade grouping because Whitelaw said that “each grade band is different and the developmental stages of students within each band were considered.”

Previously, principals could weigh class and course assignments differently when grading students. Michelle Robinson McKissack, a school board member, said during a committee meeting last week that her son’s school at one point weighed tests as much as 75% of his grade.

The heavier weight on tests aims to mimic the state’s emphasis on tests, Whitelaw said. District tests throughout the year are meant to align with and prepare students for state learning requirements, known as TNReady standards. The state test is given annually.

“We want to ensure we get a true temperature about how our students were achieving,” Whitelaw said. “As teachers give tests at the end of the week or every two weeks we wanted to make sure that students and parents understood that those assessments have a lot of weight.”

(Laura Faith Kebede)

The rules also increase the minimum number of scores on assignments such as homework, classwork, class participation, projects, and tests from 12 to 17 every nine weeks. The district’s program where teachers input student grades will have the categories and weights pre-loaded.

The guidelines also set requirements for make-up work that could replace failing grades — processes that have previously not been consistent and caused confusion as Shelby County Schools shores up defenses against more instances of improper grade changes.

During a nine-week period, principals will determine how many times students can complete make-up work and retake tests. Methods such as Saturday make-up workshops known as “Zeroes Aren’t Permitted,” or ZAP, will still be allowed.

If a student fails a grading period, teachers must consult with a school counselor and parent to come up with a plan to recuperate the grade to a maximum of 70%. That could include enrolling in Memphis Virtual School online.

At the end of the semester or school year, if a student fails a course, he or she can attend summer school or retake the course at their school or district site that provides online courses, among other options.

Previously, some schools would not record grades below 60% to prevent a student’s grade from becoming irreparable if they earned zeros on assignments. Former Superintendent Dorsey Hopson banned the so-called grade floors in 2017 after the practice was shown to contribute to fraudulent grade changes.

The ban was one of several actions the district took after a 2017 investigation showed a “pervasive culture” of passing students who hadn’t earned the credit at Trezevant High School and called for further investigation at eight other high schools.

“We don’t have a grading floor. If we don’t have a grading floor, what does [grading] look like for a student in our district? If I fail a subject, what do I need to do?” Whitelaw said of the need for uniform rules. “I think it gives us some clear guidelines across the entire district to get us to this place that if we have holes, we can help people and support people around this work.”

Tikeila Rucker addresses teachers during a rally to start negotiations between the district and teacher groups. (Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat)

Board member Althea Greene, a recently retired teacher, said last week it wasn’t too late to implement the new guidelines.

“When it comes to grading, parents often challenge you on grades,” Greene told board members and district staff. “Until you have consistent grading across the board, it’s very difficult to defend.”

But some teachers are upset the changes came two weeks into the school year rather than in the spring or summer.

“It was not sufficient time for something of this magnitude,” said Tikeila Rucker, the president of United Education Association of Shelby County, a group representing teachers. “Teachers have too many questions… It can be a good idea, but there’s poor implementation.”

Shelby County Schools plans to send out the final rules to principals and teachers by Monday. You can view the district’s presentation below: