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No zeros: Kansas City Public Schools has a new grading policy meant to improve equity

Second graders study in a classroom on May 7, 2024, at George Melcher Elementary School in Kansas City.
Zach Bauman
The Beacon
Second graders study in a classroom on May 7, 2024, at George Melcher Elementary School in Kansas City.

During the most recent school year, KCPS launched a different grading system where the minimum grade on any given assignment is 40% — even if the student didn’t do a single bit of it. It has drawn a mix of praise and criticism.

Finish zero schoolwork, expect zero for a grade.

Not anymore in Kansas City Public Schools.

The district launched a different grading system during the most recent school year. The minimum grade on any given assignment is now 40%, even if the student didn’t do a single bit of it.

The district started to discuss changes to the grading policy — which also addresses late work and grading categories — in 2021 to make grades more objective, more equitable and less punitive.

KCPS declined an interview with The Beacon, but the district has said publicly that the new system leads to grades that better reflect students’ mastery of their schoolwork.

It has drawn a mix of praise and criticism.

“Those who do not support it say you should not get 40% for doing nothing. (If) you are an hourly employee, and you don’t come to work, you don’t get 40% of your pay,” said Jason Roberts, president of the district’s teachers union. “Those who do support it say a 40% is still an F. But it’s an F that you can recover from.”

Tricia McGhee, a KCPS parent, backs the 40% grade minimum. But she said the late work policy has been unclear and inconsistent in her daughters’ middle school.

KCPS should also have done more to engage with families before implementing changes, McGhee said.

“Conversations have been going on for three years surrounding this,” she said. “Those three years could have been used a little bit better had they been in conversation with parents.”

The KCPS grading policy’s impact on schools

High school student Zoe Wilson, then a junior at Lincoln College Prep, had the impression her teachers hated “the 40% rule.” So she polled them.

Of 46 teachers she interviewed, nearly two-thirds didn’t like the 40% grade minimum and another quarter were on the fence, she told the school board during its April 24 meeting.

Zoe said one concern is that students calculate the bare minimum of work they need to do, sometimes waiting until the end of the semester to do enough makeup work to pass a class.

When she asked about that possibility in a district meeting, she said she was told it doesn’t happen. That doesn’t ring true to her experience.

“Students refusing to make up work because it won’t hurt their grade happens daily, which is a loss in education,” she said.

Roberts estimated about 60% of teachers favor the grading policy and 40% oppose it.

He doesn’t take a side but would have liked to see greater community engagement and formal board approval. The revisions were developed by a committee of teachers and administrators and approved by the union.

The district later sent parents information and surveys about the policy changes, but McGhee said that engagement should have come before the policy was in place.

“Decision-making can lack other perspectives when you’re just leaning on academic experts and not families or parents,” she said.

In addition to the 40% rule — which applies to non-Montessori students, grades two to 12 — the policy specifies that middle and high school students can get no more than 70% credit for late work and gives them a deadline to complete it.

McGhee said that’s one place where she thinks the district’s communication fell short.

She saw teachers interpret the late work policy in differing ways. Some teachers accepted work later than others. Some reminded families about late work deadlines, but McGhee didn’t receive reminders from the district or school.

Deadlines are based around quarter and semester end dates, which aren’t obvious to families because they don’t always line up with school breaks.

“The policy is not being applied across the district equitably, or even within the same building,” McGhee said.

The 40% rule has helped cushion the impact of that confusion, McGhee said, and nudge grades toward better representing what her daughters know.

One daughter, for example, regularly gets A’s on exams and projects but can fall behind on homework.

“That’ll tank her grade in a class that she’s actually excelling in skillswise,” she said.

How the 40% rule works or doesn’t work

Imagine a student who skips the semester’s first assignment and gets a 0% grade.

If all assignments are worth the same, it would take two perfect scores to get her grade above failing and nine perfect scores to eke out the lowest possible A.

Now imagine the student gets 40% for the missed assignment. With just one perfect score, she’s at a low C and with five she has a low A.

Proponents of the 40% minimum say that better reflects the kind of work she typically does and keeps her motivated.

“That can be discouraging to a student to say, ‘Hey, look at the progress I’ve made, and I still haven’t improved my grade,’” Deputy Superintendent Derald Davis said during a presentation about the grading policy to the KCPS District Advisory Committee.

The new system also makes more sense mathematically because it doesn’t devote nearly 60% of the scale to F grades, the district argued during the presentation.

The newly adopted system is an idea that has been around for decades.

In a 2004 article that is still sparking discussion, education researcher and writer Douglas Reeves called a zero on a standard grading scale a “mathematical inaccuracy” and disproportionate punishment.

But just because a scale is even mathematically doesn’t mean it’s the most fair or appropriate for a specific context, said Daniel Buck, a policy associate at the Thomas Fordham Institute. He wrote a 2022 critique of Reeves’ piece after seeing districts adopt minimum grades.

During his seven years as a classroom teacher, Buck said, he found himself becoming stricter and more convinced that high standards push students to excel. He thinks the traditional grading scale “tips toward excellence.”

While he believes some alternative grading systems are worth exploring, he said they need more study.

“We kind of skipped over the experimentation phase and went straight to the universal adoption phase,” he said. “I’m pretty sure if we had stuck with the experimental phase, we’d find out that it didn’t work very well.”

Reeves still defends his original article, but now he’s focused on teaching students to take feedback well. He thinks averaging grades in a way that penalizes students for early mistakes defeats that purpose.

Instead, he’d like to see grades based on a few major assignments that go through required revisions, with students expected to improve their work and evaluated on the final result.

“This 40% or zero is the wrong argument,” Reeves said. “The appropriate argument to have is how do we evaluate students based on how they finish?”

This story was originally published by The Beacon, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.


Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.
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