The Montgomery County board of education tentatively approved a policy proposal Tuesday to revise high school final exams and as well as another policy explaining when schools can be closed on religious holidays.
During its regularly scheduled business meeting, board members unanimously approved of policy management committee chairman Philip Kauffman’s motion to endorse the interim superintendent’s recommendations regarding final exams.
According to the motion, high school final exams for this school year will be suspended starting in the second semester. Final exams in the future will be replaced with an alternative form of evaluation.
For the 2016-2017 school year, high school students may be evaluated through centrally developed exams each marking period.
MCPS parent Michele Joseph said she does not think that a final exam is an effective evaluation of student performance in a class because it is all on one day.
“Maybe they got four hours’ sleep and maybe they didn’t perform as well, which doesn’t really reflect what they’re capable of in a whole year, an academic year,” said Joseph.
The purpose of the policy is to increase instructional time and decrease time spent in testing.
Joseph said she likes the proposed option of evaluating student performance through a final project.
“When you’re working on a project, there’s an opportunity to collaborate, there’s an opportunity to work in concert. There’s an opportunity to perhaps present, so it’s more reflective of what the demands are in the work environment and ultimately, it allows students to be engaged in the long-term process than being tested on one particular day.”
The board has not yet determined how the alternative forms of evaluation would affect students’ grade point average.
A calendar policy will specify for the first time how Montgomery County Public Schools makes a school year calendar. This includes spring and winter breaks, holidays required by state law, professional days and make-up days in case school is cancelled due to inclement weather.
Board president Pat O’Neill declared the purpose of the meeting was to discuss the calendar policy and not the calendar itself.
According to the policy, the board can decide to close schools throughout the county but it must be for a secular purpose.
It must serve an operational needs or educational interests, such as a high level of absenteeism in either students, or the inability to find enough substitute teachers.
Board members board cannot close schools solely for religious purposes.
However, the board discussed whether there is possibility of other religious holidays being added to the calendar in the future, in the case that it affects a certain number of people.
Board member Rebecca Smondrowski said she thought it was important to be clear that inclusion of some religious holidays and not others is not intended to disrespect the other people of faith.
“I’ve had two people from other religious groups come to me and if we are going to consider closing school on their religious holidays. I don’t respect one religious group more than any other in closing schools,” she said.
She said though she is not opposed to closing schools on religious holidays, right now schools can be closed for operational reasons.
Board member Christopher Barclay said there may be room for some compromise with regard to such holidays.
“I think we have the door open for a middle ground found,” Barclay said.
However, Joseph countered, “I don’t know that there is a solution, to be honest with you.”
Joseph noted she prefers that the board look for ways to include other religions on the calendar, if it is possible.
Rabbi Batya Steinlauf said the calendar policy is important so that there is clear communication as to why events are or are not on the calendar.
Excused absence for observations of religious holidays is included in the calendar policy. One parent said even when she would write a letter explaining her children would be out of school to observe religious holidays, the absence would not be excused.
MCPS parent Harminder Kaur said in the past, sometimes when her children were absent from school for religious holidays, she would write a letter requesting excused absence but her children were not excused.
“It still doesn’t happen though,” Kaur said. “You know, when we –we are Sikhs and we send a whole letter each time there is a holiday, every year the holiday comes around. And many times kids, after all it is not excused.”
Last year, on religious holidays during which schools were closed, the names of the holidays were removed from the operational calendar.
Steinlauf said she approved of that decision so that some faith communities did not feel discriminated against and so that the MCPS community did not misinterpret the reasons why some events were on the calendar.
“I actually thought it was a very sensitive decision because here people have a lot of trouble understanding that schools can’t close for religious holidays, but it feels that way, it feels like, ‘You’re getting your holiday and I’m not getting mine’” Steinlauf said.
While the names of religious holidays are not on the operational calendar for the county, which identifies days schools are closed, MCPS released an application on its website in which a person could choose to have other items included besides those.
People have the option to include religious holidays and board of education meetings.
The application is not without its flaws. Kaur said the dates of the Sikh holidays in November were incorrect because they change every year.