Middletown’s Board of Ed Debates Grading, Equity, Attendance and Good Citizenship

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MIDDLETOWN — Board of Education members raised concerns about a grading system that focuses solely on a student’s performance in math and reading rather than habits like timeliness and attendance, and sets a low grade of 50.

The district began implementing the new grading policies in August 2021. Under the new standards, a grade is entirely based on academic achievement — a combination of exams and practice assignments — but excludes extra credit work, and sets a low grade of 50. Tests and quizzes count for 70 percent of the grade, and homework and classwork count for 30 percent.

A passing grade is 60. 

Middletown High School Principal Dawn Brooks said that one of the challenges with the traditional grading system is that it was hard to distinguish whether a student was doing well based on actually mastering the material or because they had good “academic behaviors” — like completing extra credit or turning in assignments on time. 

But board members asked whether this might be doing a disservice to students by not preparing them for life after school. 

“You go to work, you have expectations. A student goes to school, there’s expectations. And I think homework is one of those expectations, from my perspective,” said Board Chair Sheila Daniels. “When they get to the workforce, they can’t not do whatever they need to do after hours. They have to develop that ethic of working, and knowing that there’s this whole spectrum of what is expected of them.”

Superintendent Alberto Vazquez-Matos agreed that the district’s new challenge was to find a way to fit things like attendance and timeliness into the grading system. 

“There has to be an accountability, and students need to also understand that they are responsible to show up. To care,” said Vazquez-Matos. “Right now, that doesn’t really live anywhere. And so, we need to create a place where that needs to live, because if you don’t show up to work, you’re not getting paid. If you’re not getting paid, there’s no dinner on the table. So there’s consequences for that.”

Board member Debra Guss said she was worried that the policy of allowing retakes would take away the incentive for students to work hard. 

“My concern with that is that it may delay moving ahead on things in an efficient way, as well as adding additional burden on the teachers and also what’s the impact on the rest of the class where you’ve got different levels of motivation,” said Guss. 

Brooks said that allowing students to retake exams, and requiring them to complete certain practice work before they can retake an exam, does teach students that working is an important part of succeeding. She said it’s rare for students to retake an exam over and over.

“We have adults who come to work prepared, and we have adults who need accommodations so that they can get their things done. Our students learn those same lessons,” said Brooks. 

The elimination of the zero grade also came under discussion at the meeting — currently, the lowest grade that a student in Middletown can earn is a 50. Brooks said the district had studied the book “Grading for Equity” by Joe Feldman, who, Brooks said, puts the idea of the minimum grade as one of his “three pillars of equitable grading.” 

“One thing that concerns me the most as an administrator, as an educator in general, is the tremendous … weight that we give to the failing grade,” said Brooks. “So when we look at going from a D to a C to a B to an A … those four passing grades where you can earn credit have 10 point increments between them. But our F has a weight of 59. So there’s 59 ways to get an F and, you know, 10 ways to get any of the other passing grades.”

Getting a zero, Brooks said, could leave a student early on in the semester without any way to achieve a passing grade, which she said takes away motivation for them to double down in an effort to recover. 

“There is no research that supports that a failing grade motivates a student to work harder. We replicated that same research in our school, and it aligned with the body of research, and giving a student a zero or a failing grade does not motivate them to do better,” said Brooks. “Do students find themselves in the first quarter and even in the second quarter still at a 50? Absolutely. But at this time of year … they at least are still in the game mathematically to get that support and remediation and take care of their business and still be able to earn credit.” 

Taking away the zero and having a system allowing retakes, she said, teaches students that it’s easier to simply complete the work the first time rather than have to go back and do it over again. 

“The idea in grading is to ensure that students are doing the work. For many students it’s easy to just take the zero. The idea is that we want the consequence. We want them to do the work,” said Brooks. 

Brooks said the change in grading had not changed student averages overall — the average grade at Middletown High School before implementing the Grading for Equity system was 86, and it is now 88. She said that in coming years, they plan to shift from a 50-100 grading scale to a 0-4 grading scale. 

Vazquez-Matos said the district was also looking at a new way to define how a student would qualify for the honor roll. He said that because the only current criteria is a student’s grade average, the student could be high-achieving but not attend classes, or had received an out-of-school suspension. 

“Honor roll should mirror all aspects of the whole student, which is inclusive of attendance, behavior, and not just, not just academics,” said Vazquez-Matos. “And so those are things we are looking into putting into place to making sure that the student’s experience not only is about achieving, but also making sure that we are creating a productive portrait of a global citizen.” 

The board also discussed the value of homework, with some suggesting that the schools begin assigning work for students to complete at home beginning in elementary school to teach responsibility. 

But Brooks said that the district needed to keep in mind that not all students had access to chromebooks or a supportive environment at home. For that reason, she said, it could be considered “inequitable.” 

“We know all of our students don’t have the same support structure at home, or some of our students actually have the responsibility of running the home at night, but also you don’t always know who is doing the homework at home. So we really try to look at homework and how much emphasis we put on it, because there are inequities that are aligned with the concept of homework,” said Brooks. 

And Brooks noted that the challenges students face have become even more pervasive since the pandemic. 

Brooks said the district’s goal was to get all teachers at the high school using standard-based grading and provide more professional development. The district plans to shift to a 0-4 point grading scale in the 2026-27 school year, as well as being able to document non-academic skills like good citizenship.


Emilia Otte

Emilia Otte covers health and education for the Connecticut Examiner. In 2022 Otte was awarded "Rookie of the Year," by the New England Newspaper & Press Association.

e.otte@ctexaminer.com