Don't look for a districtwide mandate this year on the controversial question of whether Charlotte-Mecklenburg teachers should hand out grades lower than 50 percent.
Questions and concerns about "no zero" grading systems have been simmering here and nationwide. I talked to Superintendent Heath Morrison about the issue last fall, a few months after he started in CMS. He said then that the debate had started well before he arrived and he wanted a consistent practice at all schools. But first, he said, he wanted to hear from students, teachers and parents. (Grading was not among the 22 topics flagged for task force studies.)
Controversy bubbled up again this spring, when Mallard Creek High piloted an approach calling for students to get at least a 50, as long as they made an effort. Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark said in May that the district was still gathering feedback, with no final recommendation sent to Morrison.
I thought the start of a new school year might be a logical time to get all schools on the same system. But Clark told me recently that this year will be spent on professional development, talking to principals and teachers about "mastery learning."
"What we felt like we needed to do was back up and have a conversation about grades: What are the purpose of grades?" she said.
Here's my unofficial take: Many of us grew up with a sense that grades were used for sorting students. If you worked hard for top grades, you got into good colleges. If you didn't do well, too bad. There were always manufacturing jobs that paid a decent wage without requiring much formal education.
Mastery is more about supporting students. The thinking is that we can no longer consign big groups of students to failure if we want to have a healthy economy. So teachers are now encouraged to keep working with students -- allowing them to retake tests or try again on homework, for instance -- if that's what they need to master essential academics.
Clark says the conversation about grades, involving parent leaders as well as employees, will take place this fall. I'm sure CMS officials will do a better job of explaining the approach than I have. Any districtwide mandates would come out after that, Clark said.
But just because there's no official decision doesn't mean teachers aren't getting marching orders. Right after I spoke with Clark, a CMS high school teacher who requested anonymity sent me a detailed email about mixed signals on grades.
"CMS is concerned about grade inflation and is going to hold teachers accountable when a student has an A in a class, but gets a C on a state assessment," this teacher wrote. "Of course, teacher are not permitted to look at the tests and have no input into how the tests are designed. ... In direct contradiction to CMS's concern for grade inflation, it will be encouraged that no assignment ever be scored lower than a 50%. While not required, 'encouraged' in CMS means required."
This teacher says he's also been told that students must not get a semester grade lower than 60 percent, to ensure that the student can pull the grade up and pass by year's end. And any test grade lower than 80 percent (which is generally considered the "mastery" mark) requires reteaching and retesting, he said.
"I don't even know where to begin to laugh at this," the teacher wrote. "My class sizes last year ranged from 40-43 students per class. I don't see how this kind of policy is possible to implement without holding most of my students back while I reteach material."
It looks like CMS has some challenging conversations ahead.