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Op-ed: What’s behind BCPS’ new grading policy?

By Joanne C. Simpson 

Anyone wondering where this grading policy — homework not counted, no grades lower than 50 points, ‘competency-based’ goals — originates?

Definitely not just from thoughtful internal focus groups.

Try organizations funded by education technology-related companies such as Discovery Education, Follett, Microsoft or SAFARI Montage–all doing business with Baltimore County Public Schools. 

Looks like we should be asking broader questions about the big picture here. BCPS administrators are currently reviewing the policy, and a district grading steering committee is set to discuss possible revisions on Monday, Oct. 24. 

Overall, STAT is apparently where it’s ‘at.’ 


1). In a June 2016 BCPS report, the administration lists “conversions” needed to support the laptop-per-student digital initiative whose full moniker is Students and Teachers Accessing Tomorrow. Under the plan’s “Assessment Conversion,” cited beneath a chart showing the device rollout schedule, “policies related to curriculum and assessment have been revised to support these shifts, including Policy and Rule 5210 to transform grading and reporting,” acc. to the STAT Biannual Conversions Update. 

So, the grading shift has a lot to do with the so-called “24-7 digital ecosystem” experiment? Anyone wonder whether their kids are digital-based–a zero or a one?

If this policy is part of future ongoing computer-based assessments under STAT, (i.e. more screen time) why isn’t that being told to parents? Why is it not outlined in the grading policy?

2). According to BCPS Superintendent Dr. Dallas Dance and numerous teachers, this policy was based partly on a book titled “Grading Smarter, Not Harder,” by a vice principal in Canada. It is published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, or ASCD. In fact, ASCD’s research is cited often in the BCPS Grading Policy source list.

Here are the group’s donors, a good number of which are education technology companies, several with multi-million dollar contracts to provide BCPS software, etc. ASCD Donors

Who then does this new “assessment” approach really serve?

3). The grading policy was supposed to be phased in over time, as Dr. Dance told a BCPS high school newspaper as late as March 2016. (Though that doesn’t seem to be happening). Dr. Dance also urged teachers and others to read “Grading Smarter, Not Harder” by Myron Dueck “in advance of grading changes.” And here’s the author at a standards-based conference, in a session titled “What Are We Supposed to Do About Homework?”

The grading scenario this fall, meanwhile, has been a roller coaster for BCPS students and teachers, with concerns documented widely in local social media. Is this really Grading Smarter?

4). Also, if this grading approach–which does have some positive elements if used selectively–is actually much bigger than Baltimore County, what’s happening in other districts?

Hmmm. There’s lots of similar language linked to policies ‘recommended by’ other internal focus groups, mostly in school districts where “digital learning” and online or computer-based ‘competency’ assessments–think badges and ongoing tests like MAP–have been in place, or have quickly followed suit. 

Here, for comparison, is language about the origins of BCPS’s policy, from Superintendent Dance in his Sept. Baltimore Sun op-ed:

“This approach to grading achievement and using a rubric to grade conduct is the result of two years of study, preparation and feedback involving all facets of Team BCPS — teachers, school and system leaders, students, advisory councils, and members of the teachers’ and administrators’ bargaining units. In 2014, BCPS convened the District Grading Committee to review Board Policy 5210 on Grading and Reporting, which had not been updated since 1997. The committee recommended updates based on their analysis of current research and practices.”

Here are just a few of many district descriptions about how internal focus groups arrived at — voila — the same new grading policy! (I’m sure the participants worked very hard of course. Yet outside influences are also indicated by the time it gets to the district level.)  

In Prince George’s County, MD, which considered the no-lower-than-50 points this past summer, an administrator told the board “that the recommendations come after a year of “robust” discussions between parents, administrators and educators, and that the proposals are aligned with national best practices and supported by educational research.”

The same goes for Orange County, Florida, and districts in Maine, Pennsylvania, Illinois, and other states. In Boise, Idaho, schools adopted a similar grading policy in July, with the following words: “Focus groups from each of the schools in the Boise School District consisting of students and their parents have been used to see how beneficial this policy change would be.”

Scarcely a month after the policy was approved, the Idaho school district rolled out laptops for high school students.

Do these district focus groups–mostly made up of teachers, parents, principals, and other stakeholders–get together for a national conference that offers such phraseology? Especially those gigs that feature all those cocktail parties like the Digital Promise-BCPS (a co-sponsor!) summit coming up in early November in Baltimore. I’m thinking not. 

Lastly. 5). No matter what happens with this currently chaotic grading policy, looks like we should keep an eye out for what will happen next… and make sure there’s transparency from the school administration on just what all of the positive-sounding language actually means for our children, as well as the taxpayers funding this $300 million-plus digital initiative. 

Take a look at the goals of the edtech-based organization, iNACOL, which awards a lot of those district tech awards, and sponsors a “Competency Works” site prominently featuring what amounts to the BCPS grading policy.

See this quote; Sound familiar?

“As a way of illustrating the difference between traditional and competency-based learning, teachers describe homework and classwork as a means to build skill and practice, but do not count homework or seat time as part of the assessment equation. At certain points in a trimester, students are given assessments in each content area as an opportunity to demonstrate their skill level.”

Do we really want the International Association for K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) to determine a brick-and-mortar public school grading policy? 

Sadly, I’m hearing from teachers that 60 percent at BCPS is considered “competency.” Essentially a D grade. Is this really what we want for our children? For them to be “competent.” Or, in other ‘personalized learning’ edtech lingo, “standard” or “proficient?” Our students can aim much higher than this. And so can we.

Joanne C. Simpson is a former staff writer for The Miami Herald,  South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Johns Hopkins Magazine. She is a BCPS parent, college educator, and freelance writer based in Baltimore.

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13 Comments on "Op-ed: What’s behind BCPS’ new grading policy?"

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Concerned parent

Here is more background and big picture info on the grading policy, and the continuing struggles of students, parents and teachers:

Joanne C. Simpson

For other info, following the grading policy addendum–which did offer some help though many issues remain resolved, like these “secure” online end-of-unit tests that parents and students cannot see to do error analysis, etc.??: Here is a site that also shows how the grading policy is aligned with STAT, under the umbrella of mastery-based learning, or computer-embedded assessments. That’s a mouthful. But it translates partly to computers assessing and grading our kids.


And that should be issues “remain unresolved” or “remain to be resolved.” Either way, we need some resolution! 🙂

Joanne C. Simpson

Are changes to BCPS’ new grading policy in the wind? Certainly hope so. Parent and student input forums are apparently scheduled at schools around the county this upcoming week or so, including one at Towson High School on Tuesday. Meanwhile, here’s a well-respected national education writer’s Oct. 26 post, which also touches on what’s behind such grading policies at districts around the country:

“This is what the shift in your district grading policy is really all about: laying the groundwork for the corporate-driven shift to “personalized learning,” where digital devices can be put in front of each child and data can be mined for the millions of dollars it is worth.

For your friends who don’t believe it, I say simply: follow the money.

Link here:

I assure you: it’s really not about the kids.”

Emily Talmage post:

Also, here’s what one parent down the road in the Washington, D.C. area is going through with her child in a digital learning environment at school. In The Washington Post: ” My First Grader Hates Being At School and I Don’t Blame Her”

Joanne C. Simpson
Postscript 2–JCS: For those who might be wondering, I believe there are both excellent uses for tech in schools, and in the mastery learning concept (last year BCPS had a simpler and clearer Take Two option); Yet the current grading policy (with its widespread implementation) and for-profit education technology is often intertwined.  Here is apparently another reason why: Tom Vander Ark, a billionaire investor in edtech, and a former Gates Foundation exec, appears to be pressing this approach in many venues, noting at one point on his company Getting Smart’s website: School districts are trying to shift from ‘time to’ learning–from moving kids along when they get a year older–“to progress based on demonstrated competence.” “iNACOL, where I’m a director, is the leading advocate for competency-based education [CBE]. We sponsor an online community, CompetencyWorks, where educators share views on how to design better schools.” Better for whom? If the International Association of K-12 Online Learning (iNACOL) is pushing for such assessments, doesn’t that indicate increased student time online? Is that what we want for our 7-year-olds and up? With all of the many links, some might call this a corporate conspiracy; yet it can also be termed an aggressive business plan, or even an educational vision, albeit quite centralized. Still, the end result might be the same: Huge amounts of public money going to tech companies for start-up or in-development software with little to no objective proof of longterm results… Are our children being used as whetstones to hone such… Read more »
BCPS Watch
Here, in this SXSW-Ed Conference “Panel Picker”, a Baltimore County Public Schools employee talks about “bite sized” curricula. (Although the website says 2016, this is from 2014 or earlier). The video was submitted to SXSW-Ed conference to be voted on as a choice among others for a conference panel in Austin, TX., a conference at which our BCPS Superintendent has spoken at three times . If you watch all three speakers in this very short video, it becomes clearer as to what Mrs. Imbriale is actually talking about. At first it seems that she is discussing only getting particular pieces of curricula out of vendors. What is actually being discussed is getting (and giving) small “micro” lessons to kids. Why? Because this is building up to the days of when our kids will be tested on competencies and mini-lessons which will eventually be rewarded with digital badges in a digital folder and micro-credentials. (What will happen to grades, I wonder? We already know that SOMETHING is happening with grades that other radical changes that don’t really make all that much sense). These are the beginning steps of something faaaaar more drastic. Sounds a bit out there, but a little research into BCPS (by anyone) will quickly reveal that BCPS is neck deep into Professional Development on this very topic. Research also reveals that BCPS has been planning for this for quite some time — even speaking about it across the country — and yet all of this marketing for STAT… Read more »

Read more about STAT here:

Anne Groth

Parents and other stakeholders often appear at the public comment part of the Board of Education meetings. (the archives are accessible on the BCPS website at Speakers share their concerns and ask questions without fail at very meeting. Sadly, these concerns seem to disappear into a void, leaving one to wonder what the purpose of public comment really is and if the BOE reallly cares what stakeholders think about what goes in on BCPS. My question is: who is making the decisions about our children’s education: the professional educators or the tech industry?

BCPS Watch
The author nailed it! Among the many issues surrounding BCPS and its multiple chaotic policy changes being dropped in a piecemeal fashion – as if nothing is related – is the fact that what STAT is, is the foundation for Competency-Based Education which is an educational technology movement across the country. From the beginning, BCPS led the entire community to believe that this was an issue motivated by equity and equality across the school system. The superintendent stated – eight months into his new role- that this was done to level out the haves and have-nots and that some schools (due to their PTAs) had a surplus of technology, while there existed a dearth of it at other schools throughout the county. See the first question and answer in this interview: Yet, as time and research has revealed, what was seen before as a local ed-tech obsession at BCPS and a curious need to be the country’s “visionary leaders” and “gold standard for the world”, is now obviously the foundation for Competency-Based Education which is computer-centered education, driven by software that adapts to each child’s specific needs. This is the “Personalized Learning” that STAT did promise to be; however, the way that it is coming to be, lacks transparency and is shrouded in chaos, confusion, smoke and mirrors. And, like the author stated above, the logistics are not forthcoming, such as the increase of screen time being inevitable and necessary in order for Competency-Based Education to work. A word… Read more »
Bill Groth

Or, as the Wizard of Oz once said, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain” (just before Dorothy & friends discovered what a fraud he really was!) Actually, if this entire “vision” had been laid out to all of the parents, students, teachers and stakeholders ahead of time, and there had been a concensus to go in this direction (called – “buy in”), my lips would be sealed. But the Wizards at BCPS have chosen the same “we know better than you” path as the Balto. City Police Dept., with its aerial surveillance initiative, and again the rights, wishes and freedoms of the tax paying citizens have been run over by the (Technology Will Save Us) “Progress Bus” while at the same time many of the same concerned, tax paying citizens get labeled with the derogatory term “CAVE” people (Citizens Against Virtually Everything) by the Educational Technology Industry insiders!

Bill Groth

Another fine article written by Joanne. She really knows how to dig for “the rest of the story!” Hats-off too, to the Towson Flyer for continuing to support this type of community-interest (community-concern in this case) type of reporting! As a reader who has very serious professional concerns about the Dr. S. Dallas Dance school administration at BCPS, I am no longer surprised by the opaque moves or fancy rhetoric that seem to now be acceptable both to Dr. Dance, and to our County Executive as fiscally responsible, transparent, and collaborative, community leadership. We all know that great community schools are the bedrock of great communities. With this new grading policy, it would appear that the County Executive has figured out that he too no longer needs to do his “homework”, and that a “passing grade” for our schools will be – good enough!

Wendell Wilke

Rather interesting that seat time won’t matter so much. I wouldn’t doubt that BCPS, as well as the other districts, are phasing out the importance of “seat” attendance with the hope that education moves to remote instruction-Instruction that can take place at home or elsewhere, and where one teacher can monitor several students online thereby saving overhead costs such as busing, building and classroom maintenance and requiring fewer workers and teachers. Curiouser and curiouser…(the coffee is brewing folks)

Joanne C. Simpson

Postscript: We should always ask questions, and require BCPS to be transparent about what the district is working toward. Besides, the new grading policy is mentioned as a central element of BCPS’ own 2016 STAT Conversions Update, which has not been widely disseminated to the public or parents.

Here too is a day session from the upcoming Digital Promise/BCPS co-sponsored summit in Baltimore on Nov. 2-4 at Embassy Suites, The Grand and other expensive locales. Lots of grand breakfasts and receptions.

BTW, are any taxpayer dollars going to this?

No theory here. Just the facts. I guess we’ll see what comes down the pike by the end of the school year, if not before.

League of Innovative Schools, Fall 2016 meeting.
Nov. 4
Competency-based Education (CBE) Summit (for members of the CBE Working Group)
The Grand, Corinthian Room, 2nd Floor