LAFAYETTE, Ga. -- "We'll give 'em a D and set 'em free."
That's how Walker County Schools' new grading system works, said Jim Barrett, a social studies teacher at Saddle Ridge Middle School and the president of the Walker County Education Association, the local teachers association.
"Let's be honest: This is a great way to prop up graduation rates," he told the group of about 20 people, many of who were teachers, who gathered at the Bank of LaFayette community room at an April 27 meeting.
The school district moved this year toward "standards-based grading," a system that's growing in popularity nationwide and has been adopted in such places as the 655,000-student Los Angeles Unified School District.
Proponents say it measures what students actually learn and how well they will do on standardized tests -- not on such factors as how much homework or extra-credit assignments students do. Walker County Schools' goal is to get students to reach "standards mastery," Superintendent Damon Raines said. Homework assignments, while still required under the category of "progress monitoring," won't be used to "fluff up" students' grades, Raines said.
If students show they know 80 percent of a standard they're supposed to, he said, they can retest on the 20 percent they don't know.
"People say, 'Why are you allowing them to reassess?" Raines said. "If I fail my driver's test, I can do it again. I'm going to reassess them on the 20 percent they missed, and give them the opportunity to show me what they know."
But teachers and parents at the April 27 meeting said the new grading system has made students "apathetic" and "lazy" because they can retake tests repeatedly and class assignments aren't given much importance. That hurts conscientious students who study hard to do well the first time, attendees said. Absences don't count against grades, teachers at the meeting said, and the district doesn't want homework assigned.
Donna Speegle, who teaches honors U.S. history at LaFayette High School, said on April 27 that she gave 28 students a 15-minute assignment that only four students completed.
"When four turn it in, because it doesn't count, you have a problem," Speegle said.
Students used to ask, "Is this for a grade?" said Brad Baker, a Walker County teacher whose daughter is in the Honors Academy at Ridgeland High School. Now, Baker said students ask, "Is this progress mastery, or is this standards mastery? If this is progress mastery, we're not going to do it."
Parents and teachers at the meeting said the new grading system was rushed into place and poorly implemented.
Raines, who didn't attend the meeting, didn't agree with the criticisms, which he blamed on misunderstandings about the new grading system that was put in place when school began and is still under development.
Raines said confusion about the new grading system may stem from it being "rolled out differently in some schools."
Also, the district hasn't gone all in on standards-based grading. Walker County did away with A, B, C, D and F grades for homework and switched to a 4-1 grading system, in which 4 means excels, 3 is proficient, 2 is approaching proficiency and 1 is below proficient. But the percentage grades that parents are familiar with still show up on the district's computerized report cards.
"We rolled out what we call a hybrid model," Raines said.
Raines said a committee will help put together a grading handbook for next year. Ultimately, he thinks the standards-based grading will better prepare students for college or a career than the previous grading system.
Raines said teachers shouldn't give students tests unless they've handed in their homework. And absences still count against students, he said.
"Six unexcused absences and you don't get credit for that class," Raines said, citing school district policy.
Standards-based grading aligns with Common Core Georgia Performance Standards, Raines said. The state adopted those standards in 2012. Standards-based grading also ties in with new teacher performance assessments that fully take effect next year, he said.
With help from the Georgia Association of Educators, the statewide teachers association, Barrett filed a federal lawsuit in March against Walker County Schools because he says Raines wouldn't let him voice his concerns about the new grading system to the school board at the board's Feb. 17 meeting. The lawsuit is pending.
While Raines disagreed with the criticisms, he didn't fault the teachers who made them.
"I think that there are some folks that are passionate about what they do," the superintendent said.
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at email@example.com or www.facebook.com/tim.omarzu or twitter.com/TimOmarzu or 423-757-6651.