A similarly-sized school system just around the infamous beltway from the large district I work for is struggling with the implementation of a new grading system. Evidently, even after lots of publications and a few PowerPoint slide shows explaining the new policy, teachers, parents, students and administrators are quite confused. So, the school board has decided to ease the new plan in over the next five years.

One goal of the new system is to apply some consistency to the process of assigning grades, something that is probably needed. Anyone who has taught for even a short period of time knows teachers who use some very subjective (and often surprisingly creative) criteria to arrive at a student’s grade.

In the 2004-05 school year, grades will reflect only academic achievement, although study skills will be noted on the report card. No bonus points for handing in a permission slip, or C’s nudged up to B’s just because the student tried hard.

The next year, teachers will be asked to grade students based on how well they accomplished the specific academic goals the county sets for that course or grade level.

Under previous policy, teachers had more latitude to set grades according to their own standards. Under the new policy, they’ll receive examples of what looks like "A" work, "B" work, and so on, said Betsy Brown, director of curriculum development.

Another feature of the new grading system is that students will be assessed at their individual level instead of lumping them into arbitrary groups based on a calendar.

One of the fiercest criticisms of the policy as passed last year was that it did not make clear what to do about students receiving services in special education or English as a second language. Theoretically, a fifth-grader who started a term reading at the second-grade level and made great leaps to the fourth-grade level would receive a poor mark, since grades would be assigned based on fifth-grade objectives.

Yesterday, the board accepted the committee’s recommendation that such students be graded on standards set for them individually, with their report card also noting the level of achievement the student is being measured against.

The same will hold true for gifted and talented students. "If I’m a second-grader and a team has determined I should be working on the fourth-grade level on math, I can earn an A, B, C, D or E based on fourth-grade standards," Brown said.

We talk a lot in education about "individualizing" instruction, so it only follows that we should also be talking about individualizing evaluation as well. In the ideal world, all of this would be part of creating an individual learning plan for each student. Of course, that takes a whole lot more time and effort on the part of the teacher and the school as a whole. It will also require parents to invest more time and effort in understanding how their child is doing and what they need in order to improve.

One thing that bothers me, however, is the implication here and in other recent articles about grading that the teacher should be almost completely removed from the process. That may work for assessing basic knowledge and skills (the world of standardized tests). However, the deeper you get into a subject (even topics in math and science), the more teachers must be trusted to assess student understanding of concepts and the ability to apply them. While some people would like to think they are, in the end authentic teaching and real learning are not exact sciences.