The boys at Gaithersburg Elementary School like graphic novels, or illustrated comiclike books. The girls read them too -- the "Babymouse" series is popular. And as far as the written word goes, all the students love "Harry Potter," Principal Stephanie Brant says. This is their homework.

Except for a few things: No teacher assigned "Babymouse" or "Harry Potter" to the kids, nor is any staffer going to check to make sure the students actually read the books. Plus, the kids won't be tested on the material.

At Gaithersburg Elementary, homework is a thing of the past. Instead, students are asked to read every night; moreover, they're trusted to.

The standard: Too much?
Many school systems follow a rough standard of 10 minutes of homework per grade level. For instance, third-graders would receive about 30 minutes of homework, and eighth-graders, 80 minutes.
But educators are questioning whether that standard is becoming too burdensome; After all, that sticks 12th-graders with two hours of homework, and teachers vary in how much they hand out.
"Our schools are still grappling with how to get consistency across schools and grade levels," said Noel Klimenko, Fairfax County Public Schools' coordinator for instruction in grades 7-12.
The school board's student representative, Langley High senior Lucy Gunter, said she ends up going to bed after midnight after homework and extracurricular activities take their toll. "I'm not ashamed to say I've had a few breakdowns," she said. "Limiting homework time should be a goal of this board."

"We're moving away from the repetition of skills," Brant says. "We're focused on making sure 21st-century learners have the skills they need."

While homework is still the norm on most Washington-area campuses, several schools are moving away from the traditional after-hours assignments as research challenges the traditional assumptions about the value of homework. In the spring, the University of Sydney in Australia published a study finding that homework added no real benefit to elementary-level learning but paid off for high school juniors and seniors.

But parents continue to press for homework, as some maintain that homework is necessary to reinforce lessons taught in the classroom.

"It's the way parents can really see what their children are doing," said Craig Herring, the director of PreK-12 Curriculum and Instruction for Fairfax County Public Schools. "But there is a loss of leisure time, with students reporting many, many hours spent on homework, sometimes on holidays."

In Vienna, Cunningham Park Elementary School last fall rolled out its "Homework Bill of Rights," which prevents teachers from grading homework. They're not allowed to assign homework over weekends or holidays. "Who are we as educators to dictate how families spend their private time?" asked Principal Rebecca Baenig in a presentation to the Fairfax County Public School Board last month.

Reston's South Lakes High School will implement its own bill of rights this year. It ensures homework is more than "busy work" and forbids teachers from counting homework toward more than 10 percent of a student's grade.

Educators at both schools said they were concerned that lower-income students with working parents didn't have the same advantages as other students when it came to take-home assignments.

Both also have received pushback from parents and teachers who believe homework is a staple. "We did have a few teachers feel strongly and take issue with it," said Susan Brownsword, a teacher at South Lakes. "I don't think it will go 100 percent smoothly [this] year, but we are all for the fairness of our students and we are going forward with this."

At Gaithersburg Elementary, Brant says she wasn't bothered when, after abolishing homework and pushing reading, the percentage of third-graders passing the Maryland School Assessment reading test dropped from 76 percent to 64 percent this spring. The fourth-grade pass rate stayed the same, while the fifth-grade rate increased from 81 to 84 percent.

"Certainly, we want our children to achieve at high levels," said Brant, who believes students are showing progress on school-level assessments. "For some of the students, [the MSA] is not the way they show the learning."

This year, Gaithersburg will throw math and science into the mix. In addition to reading every night, students will be asked to complete monthly projects, such as the classic experiment of dropping an egg 12 feet without breaking it.

But this isn't Gaithersburg saying homework is back on the table. "They don't have to do it," Brant says. "No, it won't be graded."