Opinion: Hamilton County school board needs a workshop on student grading policies; it’s long overdue

Staff File Photo / A new Hamilton County Schools bus is pictured at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Wednesday, July 3, 2019, in Chattanooga.
Staff File Photo / A new Hamilton County Schools bus is pictured at the Hamilton County Department of Education on Wednesday, July 3, 2019, in Chattanooga.

We remember a few of those math tests where the concepts — be they fractions, coefficients or slopes — hadn't quite settled in place. A grade in the 50s would have been a godsend.

But we also remember a few times when a homework paper wasn't turned in on time. The dog hadn't eaten it; it was at home or in the car, or, maybe, rarely, not done. A zero would have made the homework average plummet, but the kind directive from the heard-it-all-before teacher usually was to turn it in the next day, though the grade would be lowered.

We say these things in light of the controversy that has been swirling around the Hamilton County Board of Education for several weeks since board member Larry Grohn revealed the district during the pandemic had given principals the option of allowing teachers to give students a 50 on an assignment instead of an earned lower grade or a zero, and that the practice was in force at East Ridge High School, which he represents.

The controversy got a brief airing at last week's school board meeting, but the discussion was ended abruptly by Chair Tiffanie Robinson, who said it wasn't "a productive forum" and, "as chair, [she had] the right to shut it down."

We believe the subject needs wider airing and that board members should heed Superintendent Dr. Justin Robertson, who during the meeting suggested a board work session on grade repair policies might be in order.

Grohn had aired the information on an online news site earlier this month, wondering why the grade policy hadn't been approved by the board and why it was still in place.

Robertson answered the second question in a memo he passed out to board members, which said the guidance was not a grading policy but an administrative procedure, so it did not need to be approved by the school board.

If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck ... but we digress.

Board member Dr. Gary Kuehn said the practice had been going on during the tenure of at least four superintendents before Robertson and termed it "a little bit of compassion."

Detractors say it rewards students who make minimal effort, punishes students who work hard and contributes to the overall trend of gradeflation, which rewards students with higher grades than they deserve.

Several board members seemed more concerned about Grohn's airing the guidance rather than discussing the matter forthrightly last week. Robinson said he "put this board in jeopardy" and stated what he did was an "ethics violation." Board member Karitsa Mosley Jones said his action "was in bad taste."

However, Grohn said after learning about the practice on the last day of school in May he had emailed Robertson and Robinson with his concerns, had talked privately with several board members over the summer and had emailed all members the information he had before their meeting.

To us, all of that points up the need for a board work session on grade repair policies.

Regardless of whether the practice is a policy or a procedure, we agree with Grohn that grading policies across the district should be uniform and that parents and students should be advised of grading changes before they are put in place.

How confusing it must be for students and teachers who move from one school to another and find that the practice of rewarding grades is different from school to school and is up to the principal to determine.

We advocate giving school principals as much control over their particular school as possible, given the community and the students, but feel at the very least students and parents should have a good understanding of how grades are determined at each particular school.

A work session might offer discussions about whether a policy put in place during the pandemic, and implemented because of the now well-known learning losses suffered during online classrooms, should be ended; about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of district-wide grade policies; and about how divergent the grade repair strategies are across the district.

Although we don't advocate that board meetings of any kind descend into name-calling, have charges hurled back and forth and engage in discussion that goes nowhere quickly, we do believe the public always deserves to have a fair hearing of issues that come before a body, controversial or not.

If nothing else, a work session would seem to have the potential to enlighten board members about district guidance on grades and give the subject the productive treatment it needs.