It's time to talk about the 5-ton elephant in the classroom that's been largely ignored amid all the talk of educational reform: grades.
We all know the problem. From district to district, school to school, and even teacher to teacher within the same school, there is a glaring lack of consistency when it comes to grading policies and practices. The same student producing the same work may be evaluated so differently as to receive an "A" from one teacher, a "D" from another.
Every September, as a new school session gets underway, we brace ourselves for the kind of year we expect our children will have based on the reputations of their teachers.
Are they hard or easy graders? Are they considered to be fair, or inconsistent or intransigent? Do they offer extra credit? Do they grade homework? What percentage of final grades is based on tests? Do they give partial credit for incomplete answers? Are their expectations reasonable? Do they use a complicated weighting system that encourages gamesmanship but discourages real learning?
The answers are all over the chalkboard, leaving parents feeling as if any attempt to make sense of it all is a bit like trying to nail Jell-O to a wall.
The issue takes on added relevance today, as the high-stakes college admissions process grows ever more competitive.
"It's something we need to address universally," said Charles Hinman, assistant superintendent of secondary education at Newport-Mesa Unified School District.
Hinman has become a passionate advocate for grading reform. He has encouraged a dialogue at the school level with the intent of developing a more standardized approach to grading.
The district is also trying to use assessment data to identify pockets of success, which can then be used as models for other teachers to emulate.
But the reality is that nothing will change unless the teachers are on board. The state education code gives teachers virtually total control over how they grade their students.
The key then will be to steer any reform efforts in a direction that the majority of teachers support.
Grades are intended to serve several purposes. They are meant to let students know how they're doing and help them determine the best course for their futures. They're supposed to provide incentives for students to learn, and they're used as benchmarks to evaluate how schools and instructional programs are faring.
But even as far back as the late 1800s, grading was a thorny issue. That's about the time when the one-room schoolhouse style of teaching gave way to the modern concept of dividing students by grade level. In those days, evaluations were done primarily for students' benefit, as a means to demonstrate their level of mastery of various subjects and readiness to move ahead.
By the turn of the 20th century, however, compulsory attendance laws greatly increased school enrollment and fostered a boom in the number of public schools. In the decades following, schools shifted from lengthy written evaluations to percentage grading of student achievement.
Early on, that change stoked controversy. One study in the early 20th century, for instance, found that identical English papers submitted to different schools were assigned grades that varied by more than 40 points on a scale of 100. A follow-up study found an even greater variation in math grades.
Percentage scores gradually gave way to the assignment of letter grades, but the debate over the purpose and effectiveness of grading continued. Some progressive schools tried a variety of methods, from a curved grading system to a pass/fail approach.
Every method proved problematic, and today there is little consensus about what works best.
Some experts believe the nationwide movement toward standard-based curricula will usher in greater uniformity in grading as well.
"With standards, at least teachers are teaching the same things," said UC Irvine Education Lecturer Jody Guarino. "Now grading systems have to change."
Hinman's approach to grading reform might be considered radical in some quarters. He believes that grades should strictly reflect how much a student has learned. Other factors, such as attendance, classroom behavior, and homework record, should be addressed in other ways, through discipline or intervention, for instance.
District officials are realistic that any reform will come about gradually: Hinman compares the pace of change to the turning of an ocean liner. And even then, the district would have the authority only to offer guidelines for grading criteria. It would be up to individual teachers to decide which of those guidelines to employ.
But Hinman remains upbeat. Grading reform "is happening," he said. "Teachers support collaborative teams. We will get there."
I asked Hinman how parents could be part of the dialogue. Begin by talking to teachers, he said. Ask them to explain their grading rationale.
But that's only a start. Parents and students alike should be included in any discussion about grading policies. Their input, I believe, would be highly valuable and far less self-serving than educators might imagine.
As my sons have always told me, they don't mind if teachers are tough, as long as they are fair.
We wouldn't want the biggest lesson that students take away from school to be that life just isn't fair. They have plenty of time to learn that.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.