Connecticut: New, Revised School Policies Discussed

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Jun 1 13:37:20 UTC 2007

New, Revised School Policies Discussed

By Lauren Garrison
Norwalk Citizen
Article Launched:05/31/2007 11:25:39 AM EDT

Parents, educators, concerned residents and a Norwalk Community College
civics class filled the Community Room at City Hall Tuesday night to hear
about, ask questions and comment on a proposed new policy on grading and
reporting in the public schools and several proposed revisions to the
policies regarding homework, volunteers and the promotion, retention and
acceleration of students.

Before the proposals were presented, Karen Lang, the assistant
superintendent of curriculum and instruction, explained that the school
administrators decided to undertake a review of the policies for several
reasons. For one, they felt that addressing inconsistencies in practice
across the district was crucial. In addition, the No Child Left Behind Act
of 2001 has "changed the educational landscape," said Lang, requiring that
the administration review its policies or lack thereof. According to Lang,
the district does not currently have a formal policy on grading, and the
existing policies have not been updated in a long time. The revisions and
new policy have been in the works since last summer, said Lang. A large
group of administrators spent many days pouring over research, reviewing
other districts' policies, debating and discussing, she said. They then
broke up into committees and each committee composed a draft policy.

This past winter, the committee members presented drafts to all
administrators and received comments, Lang said. Each committee then
formulated another draft. The new drafts were distributed by principals to
all teachers in the district, who in turn sent feedback to the committees.
In response to these comments, each committee wrote yet another draft.
These drafts were given to the Board of Education's policy committee for
discussion and to the entire board and the public Tuesday night for input.
The instructional specialists and others who presented the policies
throughout the evening noted that the proposed revisions are based on
documented research as well as review of effective policies in other
districts in Fairfield County and in Connecticut as a whole. Volunteers in
the Norwalk Public Schools

The first revision discussed at the meeting pertained to volunteers in the
schools. The only change proposed would require volunteers over 18 years
old to submit to background checks including fingerprinting in cases where
they would work with students in after-school activities, chaperone
overnight field trips, work over a long period of time in direct contact
with students or have reason to communicate with students before or after
the school day or where a supervising teacher or administrator determined
that such a background check were prudent. Parents or guardians who
volunteer to work in their own child's school during the school day and
volunteers performing a one-time service in the presence of a teacher or
administrator would not be required to submit to a background check
including fingerprinting.

Leia Cadotte, a member of the executive committee of the Senators
Community Foundation, a Brien McMahon High School group dedicated to
preventing child abuse, spoke at the meeting. She said the group supports
the background checks but believes the policy should be stricter with
regards to the situations in which they would be required. A parent in the
audience who did not identify herself agreed, saying she felt the wording
of the proposed revision was not strong enough. "I want anyone working
with anybody's child to have a background check," she said. Sharon Cadden,
a Norwalk High School PTO representative, said she thought the policy was
too vague and would require administrators to make judgment calls in many

PTO Council Co-President Sally Cordovano said she would like any parent
driving students on field trips to be required to have their driving
records checked as well. Homework On the subject of homework, the draft
policy establishes several key points: that homework can be assigned for
different purposes, that too much homework can be counterproductive at all
levels and that lower grades should be given much less homework than
higher grades.

Next, the policy states that student achievement can vary based on the
kind of feedback provided by the teacher. Homework in which the teacher
has embedded instructive comments has the greatest effect on learning, it
states. The policy dictates that homework is not to exceed 15 percent of a
student's grade on a report card. The study committee found that teachers
in the district weighted homework anywhere from zero to 65 percent of a
student's report card grade, which the committee felt was far too wide a
range. The 15 percent value was chosen with the belief that weighting
homework too much causes parents to become "too involved" in it, to the
point that the homework no longer is a clear indicator of students'

While the policy states that "there is no clear answer" to how much
homework is the right amount, it recommends no more than 10 minutes daily
for kindergarten through second grade and not more than 15 minutes daily
for grades 3-5. In grades 6-8, students are expected to do 60 to 90
minutes of homework. The policy recommends that students in grades K-2
read independently for 15 minutes daily while students in grades 3-5 read
for 30 minutes. Homework should not be assigned on Fridays, on weekends or
holidays, but independent reading is always recommended as a daily

Board member Bruce Kimmel said he felt the time expectations for homework
were misleading and made it appear that very little was being expected of
younger students. He would like to require 30 minutes of independent
reading daily and a written response from all students, as well as the
expectation that parents will read to their children every evening. Adding
in the 10 or 15 minutes of other, non-reading, homework, this adds up to
significantly more time than the policy dictates, said Kimmel.

Cadden was concerned about the assessment of homework. The policy states
that homework assignments "hold more meaning when they are shared among
students the next day," but she pointed out that students who have not
completed the work on time can simply copy answers as they're discussed in
class, which is not fair to the students who have done their work.
Furthermore, if students are expected to discuss their work in small
groups without teacher involvement, they can waste time by leading each
other to incorrect answers, she said.

Caitlin Emro, a senior at Norwalk High School, said she felt that the
proportion of a grade that homework accounts for should be different for
different subjects. For instance, she said, in a math class, typically the
grade is determined only by tests and homework, as there are no projects
or papers. If homework weighting is capped at 15 percent, that puts far
too much emphasis on test grades, she said. Grading and Reporting

Director of Elementary Education Hugh McKiernan spoke on the topic of
elementary school progress reports. Until three years ago, he explained,
the system called for grading student performance as satisfactory,
improving or needs improvement. Since then, the schools have changed over
to a system of academic and effort rubrics that are formative, not
averaged. That is, the grade indicates where the child is at the time he
is assessed and the progress he has made, rather than an average of his
performance throughout the term.

Under the new policy, kindergarten students would be assessed in March and
June on a scale from 1 to 4, where 1 means "needs additional time or
experience" and 4 means "demonstrates mastery consistently." Students in
grades 1-5 would be assessed in November, March and June on the same
scale, with the addition of a level 5, which indicates that a student
exceeds grade level expectations or, in the case of grade 5, excels in the

Any student who at the end of the year was deemed "substantially deficient
in reading" through the District Reading Assessment or the Connecticut
Mastery Test would be required to attend summer school, which is offered
by the district at no charge. Failure to attend summer school would result
in the retention of the student in the present grade.

Students also are to be assessed on effort and social skills, in March and
June in kindergarten and in November, March and June in grades 1-5. The
students would earn assessments of outstanding, consistent, sometimes or
rarely in terms of meeting behavioral and performance expectations.

A separate progress report for English Language Learners in their first
year of learning English also is in the new policy. Level 1 ELLs would be
graded differently from other students only in language arts. A grade
would be determined by their regular teacher and their English as a Second
Language teacher.

Cordovano recommended that summer school be required for students in
grades 4 and 5 who are found to be substantially deficient in reading,
even though state law does not require it.

PTO Co-President Lynn Massey asked how the administration plans to assess
the efficacy of the new policies. McKiernan responded that the district is
in the process of conducting a longitudinal study, observing a cohort of
students as they progress through the years.

At the secondary level, the draft calls for grading policies to be
explicit and distributed in the first week of school (or semester); for
grades to be based on multiple measures of assessment (for example, tests,
homework and projects); and for all students to have the possibility of
earning high grades based on achievement judged against clearly defined

Because there has been much inconsistency across the district in grading
until now, the policy defines corresponding letter grades, unit weights
and percentages, explained Ken Martinelli, the district's instructional
specialist in science. For instance, an A has a unit weight of 4.0 and a
percentage of 93-96, while a C- has a unit weight of 1.7 and a percentage
of 70-72.

In cases where percentages were averaged to determine final grades, the
lowest possible percentage for a quarterly report card grade would be 50
percent with the exception of the final term of the course.

Advanced placement courses currently carry an additional unit weight of
1.0. Under the new policy, a student would earn the additional point only
if he or she took the AP exam for the course.

At the high school level, each of the midterm and final exams could not
exceed 10 percent of the final grade for a full-year course or 20 percent
for a half-year course. Daily homework could count for up to 15 percent of
a total quarter grade, and each department would determine the particular
percentage for its subject.

At the middle school level, all students not achieving 75 percent, or a C,
or above should be given the opportunity to retake a test, excluding
quarterly and district assessments, under the policy. Students would be
expected to take advantage of all extra support available at school and at
home before retaking a test, and a different but similar test should be

A special grading provision is included in the policy for ELLs in their
first year of learning English. An ELL who achieved a true C or above in a
subject would be given that letter grade on his or her report card.
Otherwise, teachers would assess the student as having passed or failed
the course. Students arriving in the fourth quarter of the year who could
not do enough work to earn a pass would be considered to have audited the
class and required to retake it the next year.

The policies pertaining to AP credit, retesting and the "50 percent rule"
sparked the most controversy among board members and those in the
audience. Board member Robert Polley said that preparing two versions of
every test for students who need to retake it would be a lot of work. To
this, Martinelli noted that teachers often have to do this anyway, if a
student is absent on the date that the exam initially is given.

Board member Thomas Vetter asked how to ensure that the pacing of a class
is not affected by the demands of retesting. Martinelli pointed out that
the retesting would not have to occur during class time, but could take
place before or after school, especially if only a few students were
taking the retest.

Cadden said she thought that allowing retesting sends kids the wrong
message. They will go on to college and the real world expecting a second
try at everything, she said. Furthermore, if colleges are aware of
Norwalk's retesting policy, they will begin to prefer students from
surrounding towns, knowing that they earned their grades the first time
around, she said.

Kimmel said he agreed with the 50 percent rule, since as a teacher in New
York he has seen students perform poorly due to circumstances outside
their control. To give these students a 20 or 30 percent would cause them
to lose hope, he said, whereas a 50 percent indicates to the student that
he has not done well but has the potential to pull himself up in the next

However, a parent in the audience who did not identify herself said she
felt that the 50 percent rule would give students "a false sense of
achievement." If they're made to believe they've done better than they
have, they will just be more frustrated and distressed later on, she said.

Martinelli noted that a 50 percent or F grade is not a passing grade and
said he didn't think any student would think he had done well by earning
such a grade.

Norwalk Federation of Teachers President Bruce LeVine Mellion suggested
using F-, F and F+ to present more accurately the failing grade a student

Kimmel disagreed with requiring students to take an AP exam in order to
earn the additional credit. For instance, he said, a student who works
hard all year in an AP English course, then gets accepted to an
engineering college of his choice, may not feel like taking the AP exam
but still deserves the extra credit for his work all year. He asked the
policy's authors to consider exempting graduating seniors from the

Massey pointed out a problem she saw in the system that was not addressed
by any of the new policies: a lack of sufficient feedback from teachers.
She has known of students who have asked for grades or feedback on tests
and papers only to be told that the teachers have not had the time to
grade them. Students can then go a whole quarter or even semester without
receiving any feedback and can be going on a totally wrong track without
knowing it, she said. If feedback were improved, retesting would not be
required as frequently, Massey noted. Promotion, Retention and

In the case of an elementary school considering retaining a student, the
school would have to inform the child's parents of the possibility that he
will be retained preferably by the end of January but no later than the
March parent-teacher conference. The school would then arrange a Student
Response Team conference that would include parents or guardians, a parent
advocate if requested, teachers involved and the principal. At this
conference, the group would discuss the rationale for the consideration of
retention through a review of pertinent data. The parents must also be
informed about the interventions the school has been using to address the
educational needs of the child.

At the end of the second marking period in March, the principal would
reconvene the conference to review the child's progress. The final
decision to retain the child or not would rest with the principal.

Instructional Specialist in Language Arts Michael Rafferty, who presented
the revised policy on promotion, retention and acceleration at the
secondary level, began by discussing research that indicated that
retention is not effective in the long run at improving academic
achievement or social adjustment. Furthermore, he said, retention is the
most powerful predictor of dropping out of high school.

But while the policy calls for consistent intervention strategies to avoid
having to retain students, provisions do exist for retention, he said. At
the middle school level, a student who failed one of four core academic
subjects language arts, math, science or social studies would be promoted
to the next grade and be encouraged, but not required, to attend summer
school. A student who failed two core academic subjects would be retained
unless he attended and passed one summer school class as recommended by
the Retention Review Team and/or principal. And students who failed three
or more core academic subjects would be retained upon review of the case
by the Retention Review Team and the principal.

Some board members felt this policy did not demand enough of students.
Kimmel said that if a student fails even one course, the district should
do whatever it can to get him into summer school. Kimmel acknowledged that
family plans sometimes make attending summer school difficult or
impossible but suggested that the policy be changed to require summer
school for a student who has failed one or more core academic courses
except under extenuating circumstances.

Board member Migdalia Rivas agreed, saying a child who fails any class
should have to attend summer school.

Mellion said he did not think that language arts should be treated
differently from other core subjects in promotion/retention policy. For
instance, he said, he believes a child should not be able to repeatedly
fail language arts and continue to be promoted.


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