grades 0000007 Louis J. Sheehan

New Grading Policies
Roil Dallas Parents, Teachers

Scores, Deadlines
Are Eased in Plan
To Limit Dropouts
August 20, 2008; Page A2

DALLAS — As students prepare to return to school here Monday, teachers and parents criticized the relaxation of the district’s grading policies in a state that helped trigger national testing requirements.

[falling behind]

The Dallas Independent School District’s new policies give students who do poorly more chances to improve their grades. Among the changes: High-school students who fail major tests can retake them within five school days, and only the higher scores count.

School officials say the changes are designed to reduce one of the highest dropout rates in the state. According to the Texas Education Agency, 25.8% of students in the Dallas district who enrolled as ninth-graders in 2003 dropped out before their class’s scheduled 2007 graduation.

But the policies have sparked criticism since the Dallas Morning News reported them last week, with angry parents and teachers contending that the district is watering down educational standards for its more than 160,000 students.

“These kids have already gone too far in not being held accountable,” says Tracy Dotie-Hill, who has one daughter in Dallas’s W.E. Greiner Middle School and another who just graduated from the district’s Skyline High School. “When you go into the work force, if you don’t meet the standards or deadlines, you have to reap the consequences.”

Teachers say the policy undermines their authority. “It’s micromanaging and not trusting the fact that we are professionals,” says Diane Birdwell, who teaches 10th-grade world history in a Dallas high school and is executive vice president of the Dallas chapter of the National Education Association, a teachers’ union.

Dallas school administrators say they aren’t lowering standards — they are giving students additional chances to meet existing requirements.

“Chief among the reasons children drop out of school is because they are failing their course work,” says Denise Collier, the Dallas district’s chief academic officer. “We don’t want to give them a pass, but at the same time we don’t want to pass them over.”

The Dallas policies appear to fly in the face of a national trend toward tougher grading standards, according to Dan Goldhaber, a research professor at the University of Washington’s Center on Reinventing Public Education.

More than a decade ago, loose standards by local districts led several states — including Texas — to exercise tougher control over their public schools. Later, the federal government raised its oversight, implementing the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act. That law has itself come under some criticism for emphasizing standardized-test scores.

“This is the reason we’ve gotten to this place,” Mr. Goldhaber says, referring to the new Dallas grading policies. “It really does look like the lowering of standards.”

The new Dallas policies stipulate that students must be given at least one chance to make up work they don’t turn in on time, with any penalty to be determined by the school, and that high-school students enrolled in regular courses can be assigned no more than ten hours of homework a week.

In addition, no student can receive a final score lower than 50 out of 100 on a report card — a policy the district says has existed in the past.

Among large school districts in Texas, Dallas’s dropout rate is second only to San Antonio’s, and it is higher than the 22.1% rate in Houston, the state’s largest school district. Almost two-thirds of the students in Dallas’s 225 schools are Hispanic, while 29% are African American and 5% are non-Hispanic white.

Some Dallas parents say the changes are necessary. “We’re going to have to come up with some concepts [to keep] a child in school,” says Ola Allen, president of the parent-teacher association at Skyline High School.

But the move could hurt students overall, says David Figlio, a professor of education and economics at Northwestern University. “It wouldn’t surprise me at all if it helps on the margin with the dropout problem but ends up reducing the incentive for students to do well,” he says. “This is a case in which there’s no free lunch.”

Write to Jeffrey Ball at jeffrey.ball@wsj.com1

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Louis J. Sheehan

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