The Plano Independent School District is considering a change in their grading policy, and – as often happens in large organizations – they are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In an attempt to keep at-risk kids in school, they are eliminating all reasonable consequences of insufficient effort on the part of students instead of using creative techniques to improve student performance.

Plano’s ISD, much like Richardson’s, has long been considered a high-achieving district with highly competitive students (and parents). But changing demographics have brought more students who struggle to stay engaged in their education. With more than 50 different languages spoken in homes, both districts struggle to stay connected with parents, many of whom think college preparation is a waste of time and energy. Plano officials seek to reduce dropout rates by eliminating policies which discourage students, especially grade penalties for late work, cheating, disorganization, and incorrect answers on homework. The idea is to focus instead on teachers’ assessment of overall learning

More, after the jump:

First, I pity the poor teacher who has to make a grade determination based on nebulous progress instead of simple grading averages. It won’t take long for a line to form with complaining parents protesting her assessment.

But Plano misses the bigger picture. Smart teachers have always used creative techniques to keep students engaged. Daily participation grades keep students attentive. Homework completion grades reward those who gave homework a try (Dallas ISD prohibits giving grades lower than 50, but a 100 for completing homework averaged with a zero for all wrong answers gives the student that same grade of 50 except it was earned, not gifted). I’ve also seen teachers who drop lowest grades (we all have bad days), count high grades twice, encourage extra credit, and reward attending tutoring sessions – a wide variety of ways to increase the impact of positive rewards for positive efforts.

On the other hand, I do think it is time to rethink harsh rules. Students who’ve been ill return to mountains of homework and tests to make up from all classes, and they often aren’t physically up to the effort. Districts should develop a reasonable grace period to enable catching up. And it’s time to examine homework – is an assignment with 100 questions really necessary? Maybe 15 would reinforce the lesson without making students feel overwhelmed. And don’t get me started on projects. I propose a rule that teachers should give at least three full class periods to begin major projects in the classroom so that parents don’t have to try to decipher instructions and intent at home.

Eliminating homework is going overboard, but so is awarding a zero for homework left in one’s locker or on their desk back home. There must be a way to foster organization and responsibility without killing the spirit. And participating in school athletics and activities helps many kids enjoy the school experience. I propose a once-a-week 100 for attending any school sporting event, choir concert, stage play, or other activity, whether participating directly or supporting classmates. Involvement breeds engagement.

I applaud Plano for seeking new solutions to keep kids in school, but they’re allowing their pendulum to swing too far. Low expectations don’t keep students engaged, but it IS time for creative thinking to provide opportunities for all who CHOOSE to pursue them.