Merrimack’s controversial homework protocol continues

Officials working out flukes of program launched this year

MERRIMACK — The Merrimack School District will not grade homework for yet another year, as district officials work out some of the problems that arose during this year’s trial run, school board members decided this week.

Assistant Superintendent Mark McLaughlin presented the final outcomes for the first year of the new protocol. In short, they need more time to figure out how to make it work.

“There persists significant misunderstandings” over the intent and implementation of the protocol, McLaughlin said, placing the blame on himself for not better explaining to parents and teachers what their goals were.

Over the years, he said, parents and teachers expressed concerns that there was too much homework, that teachers weren’t consistent with checking it, that homework could kill a student’s GPA, or that it wasn’t helping the students.

For these reasons, McLaughlin and other administration worked on a pilot program in which teachers could still assign homework, but that it would no longer be graded.

The goal with this, he said, was to reduce grade inflation/deflation that homework could cause, increase alignment between a grade and a student’s actual performance and also limit the “variance of experience” that students may have between teachers. This would also, he said, support independence and responsibility, leaving it in the students’ hands to decide whether or not they would do the extra work to help their performance, while not being directly graded on it.

“This does not mean no more homework,” McLaughlin said.

However, implementation left much to be desired and teachers complained that they did not have enough time to figure out the new protocol, therefore causing students and parents to complain over a lack of consistency.

In a survey distributed after the first semester, results showed students seemed less likely to do the work if it was not counted, they focused on the grades, not on their concept understanding and that students did not seem to care about the benefits of optional work.

Some teachers said since many students were not completing the homework, they were having to spend more time on practice during class. Some students also said that they were completing the homework, but it was not being evaluated and returned with feedback.

While some parents and students reported no change in grades but less stress over homework, the responses were “all over the map,” McLaughlin said.

“The communication to educators and parents must be improved,” he added, recommending another trial year so they could smooth out the wrinkles.

Board member Andy was the most critical of the program, expressing concerns over the fact that many of the teachers understood the protocol, but they did not agree with it. He suggested perhaps still grading the homework, but having it count for a smaller percent.

Board member Naomi Schoenfeld said she would like to see a comparison between cohorts: how students in the same grade levels had done in the year before the protocol versus how the same age group did the year after to help gauge the effectiveness.

Again, McLaughlin emphasized, they had to ask themselves if the outcomes would have been different if the protocol had been better understood by all involved.

The board ultimately agreed to give the protocol another year, although since it is a protocol and not a policy, they did not need to vote on the issue.

“I think we’re headed in the right direction,” Shannon Barnes, board chair said. “Nothing truly brave ever happens smoothly.”

Hannah LaClaire can be reached at 594-1243 or