Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

3 Reasons Why School Districts Change Grading Practices

on January 31, 2012

Parents assume that their children’s grades reflect what they’ve learned.

But that isn’t necessarily the reality. When you add up points for homework and extra credit, students could get an A or B in a course without learning concepts.

For the past two years, the Clear Creek Amana Community School District in Iowa has released teachers early on Wednesdays so they can take a formative assessment course. In this course, they study ways to assess students continually throughout the year and use the assessment results to inform their instruction.

Through the formative assessment class every teacher takes, the school does the groundwork with its staff so that they have a firm foundation of research and analysis about standards-based grading. They read books and articles together, and in a Google Doc, comment and collaborate on what they read.

While standards-based grading has its supporters, this different method can cause confusion. Parents aren't always sure how their students are doing because it's an unfamiliar system. Teachers may spend more time transitioning to this way of grading. And students may not understand how this system works compared to the grading they're used to.

By keeping letter grades and using rubrics to show student progress on standards, Clear Creek Amana Middle School made the move that was easiest for the community and parents to understand, Fox said. With its grading philosophy, the school also provides parents and students with definitions of grading terms they use in the rubric and what their grading mission and principles were.

After several years of studying assessments and standards-based grading, the middle school decided to pilot “grading based on learning” in spring 2011.

"We felt that grades were often misleading because a lot of it was based on homework or work completion, but that didn't necessarily mean that the student had learned the material," explained Brad Fox, principal at Clear Creek Amana Middle School.

As more states renew their focus on state education content standards, school districts like Clear Creek Amana are changing the way they grade. Here are three reasons why. 

1. To reflect student progress on standards

If a student gets a B on a test, he or she doesn’t necessarily know what that means in a traditional assessment-based grading system. The teacher’s Web-based gradebook includes points or percentages based on test, quiz and homework assignments, but a percentage doesn't communicate specifically what areas the student struggles with.

With standards-based assessment and reporting, the gradebook shows how students do on state standards, said Matt Townsley, director of instruction at Solon Community School District in Iowa. But at the end of the grading period, most school districts, including his, calculate a final letter grade. In the district’s elementary school and other elementary schools, they only show the standards on report cards and don’t use letter grades.

Standards-based assessment and reporting often utilizes numerical rankings that can augment traditional letter grades. Teachers who follow the four-point scale recommended by author and leading education researcher Robert Marzano place a number next to each standard.

If a student scores a 4 on the standard, such as "Understands what a parabola is and finds the root," that student understands the idea. If a student scores a 1, the student needs help understanding the idea.

In Solon Community School District, these grading shifts are changing parent-teacher conferences from, "How can we get my child's grade up?" to, "What are some strategies I can use at home to help my daughter find the area of a triangle?"

"Teachers really don't want to talk about grades," Townsley said. "Teachers really want to talk about how their kids learn at a higher level, so it really transforms that conversation."
At Grand Island Public Schools in Nebraska, curriculum and assessment centers on state standards. During the summer and throughout the year, curriculum and assessment teams dig into what the standard expects students to know and do.

Then these teams of, for example, fifth-grade teachers work with district curriculum staff to find curriculum and resources that support the standards and also create assessments to monitor whether students meet the standard.

The Nebraska district is preparing to adopt standards-based grading, so teams at the elementary, middle and high school level are reviewing the grading and reporting guidelines.

"We really want grades to tell a parent, 'Your child is on track and is making progress to know the standards,'" said Robin Dexter, associate superintendent for student services.

2. To differentiate instruction

Unlike traditional grades, standards-based grades don't reflect attendance or late work. Instead, they focus on measures that tie directly to students' progress on standards. 

This grading method allows students to demonstrate concepts in ways other than a test. A student who didn't do well on a quiz could show he understood a math concept by using objects — as one of Townsley's students did when he taught in the classroom. They could can do projects, create videos or write a research report in lieu of testing. 

Standards-based grading also places less emphasis on time. If a student doesn't turn in an assignment on Friday, that student still has a chance to demonstrate learning on Monday or Tuesday. And if students don't understand something on the first assessment, they have an opportunity to take it again without penalty after spending more time on the concept. 

"When we change to recording standards in the gradebook, it opens up this idea of differentiation," Townsley said. 

In Townsley’s district, teachers previously put assignment scores into the gradebook. Now they're shifting toward marking how well students do on the standards. 

If students at Clear Creek Amana Middle School aren’t at least proficient in a concept, they have relearning time with the teacher and take the assessment again, Fox said. The new assessment results replace the old. 

Depending on the students’ level of understanding, they receive different levels of assignments. Most of the science, social studies and math teachers create these assignments, and many teachers use a “light signal” system that corresponds to the level of assignments students need — red, yellow or green. 

A green light means students are secure in their knowledge of a particular learning goal and need an advanced placement assignment. A yellow signal indicates they may need more practice. And a red tells them they're struggling and either need to start over from the beginning of the lesson or receive one-on-one support. 

The teachers who create different levels of assignments tell Fox that while it's harder to design the assignments, it's better work. Students are more comfortable with asking teachers for help. And their grades reflect it. 

In the first trimester of the pilot at Clear Creek Amana Middle School, nearly 65 percent of students made the honor roll. That's much higher than it's been in the past, Fox said. 

"I believe that homework that's not at the students' level — where they actually can go home and work on it independently — really creates a barrier between schools and home and the student," Fox said. "And when you're doing everything based on the standards, it really forces you to have the students working on practice work at home that they can actually do and [can] feel some success."


3. To make grades consistent and understandable

Over the past seven years, Grand Island Public Schools has been working to make grading consistent. And that work continues today. 

At the high school level, they're making sure that across eight sections of Algebra I, for example, teachers have the same curriculum, grading method and expectations. Some of the ongoing conversations include what to do with zero scores, missing work and summative assessments that students fail. 

At the elementary level, the district is looking into the comments that teachers make on rubrics. The elementary schools don't use grades, so the comments tell parents how students progress on the standards. Because teachers spend quite a bit of time commenting, the districts want to know how much is too much. 

Overall, standards-based assessment and reporting frees teachers to focus more on learning and less on what they put in the gradebook, Townsley said. This practice makes the curriculum more transparent. And it communicates how well students do on specific standards. 

"Standards-based grading is more than just a logistics shift," Townsley said. "It's more than just changing the way you report out. It's a philosophical change." 

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Tanya Roscorla

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.



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on Mar 23, 2012
What is the purpose of a letter grading system and how does it benefit in any way to the self- esteem and curiosity of the learner? I was priveledged to attend the "Harvard of the West", doing business as The Evergreen State College in lovely Olympia, Washington, where letter grades, grade point averages, and testing do not exist. What happens at TESC is a amazing non-competitive learning environment exists where curiosity abounds and learning is for learnings sake.