Certain high school grading policies might be directly contributing to high rates of student absenteeism across Montgomery County Public Schools, teachers and students say.
Teachers should view “erring on the side of the student” as their guiding principle when dolling out grades, according to the school district’s most recent grading and reporting guidelines. This includes honoring the “50% rule,” a grading policy first implemented by MCPS in 2006 and reemphasized since the COVID-19 pandemic’s virtual learning period.
The 50% rule requires teachers to give students a minimum grade of 50% on a missing or incomplete assignment. The only circumstance in which a teacher can assign a zero is after “appropriate support, intervention and two-way communication with the student and parent/guardian,” according to current MCPS policy.
While educators are encouraged to demonstrate grace and flexibility in their grading practices, some teachers suggest an overemphasis on leniency disincentivizes students from staying engaged with their education.
“These kids are smart. They know how to game the system,” said one MCPS high school teacher, who asked to remain anonymous due to retaliation concerns. “If they get half credit for everything whether they do it or not, they’re not going to do it. So it’s a question of how we get kids to come to class when they know they really don’t have to do anything at all.”
The student member of the Board of Education, Richard Montgomery senior Sami Saeed, told MoCo360 he’s interested in reevaluating the policy with the school board this coming year to any extent possible. He said he’s spoken with numerous fellow MCPS high schoolers who agree that even though the policy makes school easier, it’s not in students’ best interest.
“It’s almost like a safety net to fall on that shouldn’t be there, because now students aren’t developing the work ethic they need to succeed in life,” he said. “Even students who benefit from it—if you really talk with them, they’ll tell you they know it’s not good for them.”
Saeed said he would support a policy allowing students to get a 50% on a failed assignment if they could demonstrate having put effort into it, but that “there’s no excuse” for giving students a zero if they didn’t even bother attempting to turn in the assignment.
Montgomery Blair High School teacher Danny Cole, a seven-year veteran MCPS educator, reiterated Saeed’s concerns.
“Because a lot of the kids know the system, the kids with lower standards who just want to pass will play that game,” he said. “You’ll have a kid who does nothing for the whole semester, and then last two weeks of May or June, they’ll do a couple assignments and bump themselves up to a D.”
He added that the policy also effectively “punishes” parents for communicating with their students’ school, because “they know if they pick up the phone, it might mean their kid gets a worse grade.”
“I just think it’s a terrible example,” he said. “I want my students to leave school with the life skills to do something. If they think they can get 50% for not doing anything and they go to work at Chipotle and don’t show up, they’re going to get fired. I see this as a real disservice to the purpose of school.”
In recent years as concerns have grown over rising student absenteeism and plummeting math and literacy rates, many local high school newspapers have published opinion pieces about the 50% rule’s potential contributions to the trends—including Winston Churchill, Springbrook, Wootton, Sherwood, Rockville and Richard Montgomery high schools.
“We all know and love the Montgomery County Public Schools 50 percent rule because you can literally do the bare minimum and still get by in the class,” a 2019 Watkins Mills article begins. “But the harsh reality is when you get to college you only have two options, pass or fail. That’s it. So how much is this rule really helping you?”
While debate over the policy’s efficacy has spiked since the pandemic, the 50% controversy is nothing new. A 2014 work group convened by then-superintendent Joshua Starr surveyed 327 high school math teachers regarding student exam performance.
According to the report, “Grading practices and the lack of a requirement to pass the exam to get credit accounted for over half of teachers’ comments about why students fail and also about what would improve performance,” with many teachers specifically citing the 50% rule in their comments.
“No grading system is perfect,” MCPS communications director Chris Cram wrote to MoCo360. “However, thoughtful guidelines help ensure that students’ grades aren’t overly impacted by a few assignments, either positively or negatively. A student’s grade should reflect mastery of course content more than it reflects the completion of prescribed tasks.”
Cram pointed out that on a 100-point scale, the percentage range for a fail—0 to 59—is disproportionate to all higher grade ranges.
“Assigning lower than 50% still results in an E and serves only to increase the work needed to improve to the next grade level of D,” he wrote. “While some argue that a student shouldn’t receive something for nothing, receiving an E, failure, is what they receive whether it’s 50% or 0%. The requirement for two-way communication with a parent or guardian before assigning a zero is essential because of the disproportionate impact of a zero on a student’s grade.”
Nearby district Fairfax County Public Schools does not allow the assignment of zeroes whatsoever, Cram noted.
Cole said he hopes the school district will consider reevaluating its grading and attendance policies to place greater emphasis on keeping students in class and engaged with their studies.
“My wife and I love teaching. We get paid well. We really appreciate the County Council and Dr. [Monifa] McKnight fully funding our raises. This is not saying ‘woe is us,’” he said. “But I would personally be willing to trade some of that new raise if it meant I had kids who are in class, care about coming and are interested in doing the work. I just think we’re not doing right by our students.”