Since when does getting an 85% on a math test earn you an A?
Or a score of 72% get you a B?
Or even better, when does getting half of the questions wrong on a test give you a passing grade of D?
It is possible. But first, you’d have to be a middle school student in Harford County Public Schools. Then you’d have to be in certain classes in certain schools. In the end, it comes down to the luck of the draw, because there is no rhyme or reason to where math grades are being curved in the county’s public middle schools. And when the problem was discovered and presented to HCPS Supervisor of Mathematics Sarah Morris, she told the schools that each of their math departments should decide whether to curve or not to curve. After that dodge, she may as well have added “Let them eat cake.”
The discrepancies among, and even within some of the nine middle schools in Harford County, seem to stem from a set of contradictory instructions.
First, the teachers’ guides to the University of Chicago School Mathematics Project (UCSMP) math books being used in county middle schools encourage teachers to curve grades as follows:
85 to 100 =A
72 to 84 = B
60 to 71 = C
50 to 59 = D
0 to 49 = F
This scale is accompanied by the following explanation:
“Such a low curve alarms some teachers, but students in the UCSMP courses generally learn more mathematics overall than students in comparison classes. We believe that the above grading policy rewards students fairly for work well done.”
As rationalizations go, that one deserves a C, but let’s give it a B in keeping with the spirit of the curve.
The teachers’ guide continues:
“Some teachers have said our suggested grading scale is too easy. Maybe they have better students. They simply raise our scale. Why? Must every class have D students? Wouldn’t it be nice if all students got As?”
It would be even nicer if all students got the grades they earned.
The HCPS curriculum guide from 1999 supports this nonsense with a similar “conversion chart” and even instructs teachers to change the number grades on tests and quizzes in their grade books and on students’ papers, potentially making the curve difficult to detect.
Apparently, the curve was later dropped from the updated curriculum guide, leaving conflicting instructions for teachers and schools. So, it’s easy to see how the problem may have come about.
No matter how or why it happened, the solution has to be county-wide. Either UCSMP tests should be curved (that is, if you buy the explanation in the teachers’ guide) or they should not be curved, in all Harford County public middle schools. If individual schools make this decision unilaterally, uniformity is left to chance. So, direction has to come from the top.
But according to information obtained by The Dagger, the problem wasn’t even detected until it was brought to the attention of school-based personnel in March. When Math Supervisor Sarah Morris was later contacted regarding the need for consistency countywide, Morris responded that the decision to curve or not to curve was up the math department at each school.
That might solve the problem within schools, but it provides no guidance as to which direction the schools should go and virtually guarantees the inequity among schools will be perpetuated. Not the kind of answer you would expect from Morris, who sat on the HCPS Grading & Reporting Ad Hoc Committee, which issued a report saying uniform grading policies need to be established to “ensure equitable grading practices from teacher to teacher and from school to school”.
Patterson Mill Middle/High School parent Sue Schindler feels the impact as both a middle school math teacher and as the parent of a middle school student in a math class where grades are not being lifted by a curve. To her credit, Schindler is speaking out after learning that reasonable attempts to get answers from Morris had failed. She said “As a teacher, I’m upset that we can’t get a definitive answer. As a parent, I’m ticked off because my child is not being treated the same as other kids in this county”.
There are plenty of reasons why grades matter, but given the number of competitive high school magnet programs in Harford County, middle school grades take on added meaning here. If you need an A in math to get into the Aberdeen Science and Math Academy, shouldn’t that A mean something? And shouldn’t it mean the same thing, no matter which middle school a student comes from?