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Standards-based grading

Standards-based grading:
Where a D is not necessarily a bad thing
Kentucky School Advocate
November 2016
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer 
Embedded Image for:  (20161021103013500_image.jpg) If a student masters first-semester algebra, but doesn’t turn in a few homework assignments and goofs off a bit in class, should he get an A on his report card? Or should he be penalized with a lesser grade, even if he aces the material?

If another student struggles through that same class, but toward the end of the semester finally puts it all together and demonstrates mastery, is it fair for her grade to reflect her earlier difficulties or should it reflect her final knowledge?

These scenarios, in essence, help illustrate why a practice known as standards-based grading is becoming more common in Kentucky schools, doing away with classic letter grades.

“There are so many reasons why people give grades; there’s often a lot of ‘noise’ that gets introduced to that signal,” said Dr. Gerry Swan, University of Kentucky associate professor of instructional systems design who has worked with Kentucky districts that have converted to the system. That “noise” can include attendance, behavior, homework and other measures that do not reflect whether a student has mastered the subject or set of standards.

“Standards-based grading doesn’t mean we’re getting rid of grading or tracking or monitoring,” Swan said. “It’s just saying, ‘OK, we’re going to revisit how we use this stuff so we’re doing it in a manner that makes the most sense.”

He said he wouldn’t be surprised if 75-100 Kentucky districts had schools that are doing something along the lines of standards-based grading.
From foreground to rear, Joe Harrison Carter Elementary students Chloe Jones (counting on her
fingers for a little help), Klaire Leslie, Bailey Pennington, Kayden Walker and Mikey Hammer
take a Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessment in mathematics. Standards-based grading
does not do away with formative assessments like these.

“I would say there are many districts that are doing something in the realm of revisiting grading and there’s quite a few that are definitely doing what we might consider standards-based reporting,” said Swan, who also is assistant dean for program assessment in the UK College of Education.

Monroe County schools were among the earliest adopters of standards-based grading in the state, aided by Swan’s work. Today, all three of its elementary schools use a report card that grades students based purely on academic performance with separate notations for those other factors.

Several principals heard about standards-based grading in a professional development session and pitched the idea to district leadership about half-dozen years ago. The school board gave the go-ahead for a one-year trial and a team of district and school administrators worked to develop the new system.

The first report card was unwieldy, with students rated “line by line” on mastery or nonmastery of learning targets with no letter grades, said Elementary Instructional Supervisor Christie Biggerstaff, at that time a principal.

“It was like a book,” Superintendent Amy Thompson said. “You live and learn.”
Embedded Image for:  (20161021103925510_image.jpg) About the same time, state assessments were using four classifications: novice, apprentice, proficient and distinguished, and Monroe County administrators decided to align student mastery under those headings in their elementary report cards and winnow the more detailed version to one that focused more on concepts (See reproduction at right). Other districts have used numerical values or other terms to explain degrees of mastery, but the idea is the same.

Jeff Blythe, principal at Monroe’s Joe Harrison Carter Elementary, said the standards-based system has hastened the school’s move toward “looking at every single student.”

“It’s kind of weird that your way of reporting would affect your teaching so much, but it gave us clear data, and once you know, ‘OK, this student has not mastered this specific skill or this specific standard,’ then you’re going to have to do something about it,” he said. “You can’t just know about it and not do something about it. To me, that was a huge thing, that it affected our instruction so much.”

Joe Harrison Carter Elementary first-grade teacher Keri Turner said she thinks the standards-based approach gives her students a deeper understanding of the material, as opposed to rote memorization. “They’re able to explain it, they’re able to demonstrate it,” she said.

Students, who keep their own data notebooks, are aware of the standards and how they’re doing on them, Blythe noted. “That’s true ownership of learning,” he said.

Secret to success: communication

In laying the groundwork for Monroe County’s conversion, professional development sessions for teachers were held the summer before it was launched. Then, each elementary school held a parents’ night in which the standards-based grading system was explained.

“The thing that was so important is that we educate all stakeholders. It was very transparent, so everyone on board, board members and community members, would all understand the ‘why,’” said Thompson, who was instructional supervisor at the time.

The communication with parents made all the difference, said board Chairman Dr. Michael Carter. “We worked really hard to explain,” he said. “If you just went and did it and all of a sudden showed up with these grades, you’re going to get a lot of phone calls. Everybody now seems to be taking it quite well and the children really don’t mind because they’ve gotten used to it, anyway.”

Parents can see the value of it, Blythe said. “It is a pretty radical change, but you know, I think the parents see, too, the depth we’re looking at, the students’ mastery of content and what they’re able to do and they appreciate that as well – that we don’t just give a test and move on.”

As a parent who served on elementary and high school councils, John Harlin said he was skeptical at first, since he grew up with the traditional letter grades. “But I was amazed at how it went over a lot smoother than I thought it would,” he said.

Harlin, who will be moving to the school board in January – he is unopposed for the seat – said, “I think there are strengths in that you don’t give negative feelings to an elementary kid for getting a D or a C. Whereas if you’re talking novice, using that terminology, you don’t think it’s as bad a slam dunk for them.”

The experience of introducing standards-based grading has taught district leaders a lot about communications. “We’ve kind of implemented that whole idea and concept with any program we do,” Biggerstaff said.

Why no further?
Thompson and Biggerstaff said other challenges and changes in leadership at the middle and high schools precluded introduction of standards-based grading there.

But Swan said this is not unusual in Kentucky, where it is easier to make the shift at the elementary level because there isn’t as much competitiveness for GPA to get into college, for KEES scholarship money, athletic eligibility and valedictorian honors.

“We can’t send to Western Kentucky University that they mastered our science,” Thompson said. “They want a GPA.”

“There’s just a whole tapestry of highly sensitive, political things attached to grades” at the high school level, Swan said.

But, he added, “they’re not things that can’t be worked out.”

Next steps
Blythe said the next wave in this process is self-paced instruction, calling it “the next logical step.” A couple of his teachers are now piloting this, in which students are not held back from advancing as they master material, and conversely, are given more time for mastery if they are struggling. Other districts call this performance-based.

Angie Ford, a fourth- and fifth-grade reading and social studies teacher, is one of the teachers trying out self-paced instruction and is enthusiastic about how well it melds with standards-based grading.

“I think it gives children more time to understand the skills they are supposed to be learning because it does go along with self-paced,” Ford said. “You might have kids who need three or four lessons with that skill and you might have kids who already know that skill. So with the standards-based, when they prove to you they know the skill, they can go on.”
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