Corridor school districts shift to standards-based grading

Full implementation expected in Cedar Rapids Community S.D. by the 2016-2017 school year

Photo illustration by Stephen Mally/The Gazette

A report card sits on a desk in the Cherry Valley School building at Us
Photo illustration by Stephen Mally/The Gazette A report card sits on a desk in the Cherry Valley School building at Ushers Ferry Historic Village in Cedar Rapids.

Being an “A” student is starting to take on a whole new meaning for area school districts.

A presentation from Associate Superintendent Trace Pickering during a June 9 school board meeting unveiled Learner-Centered Assessment and Reporting, “an approach aligned to the practice of determining student learning and achievement based on clear standards and outcomes.”

He announced goals of full implementation in the Cedar Rapids Community School District’s middle schools by the 2015-2016 academic year and to high schools by 2016-2017.

Pickering intends to bring a proposal to the school board in spring 2015.

In short: Grading is about to change for the state’s second-largest school system.

The new practice shares DNA with standards-based grading, but Pickering said the decision to not use that term arose from a desire to steer focus from the end product of a letter grade or point value and toward student progress.

“It’s about understanding and being able to move forward in the standards rather than (just) doing the assignment,” said Sandra Dop, director of the Iowa Department of Education’s 10-member Iowa Competency-Based Education Collaborative, which includes the Cedar Rapids district.

“It eliminates points and percentages and extra credit, all the things that enter into this artificial grade we give students. In a standards-based or competency-based environment, you’re looking for student-generated evidence that they understand and are ready to use (that knowledge) at a higher level.”

Dop said the state does not track which districts use standards-based grading, but that more Iowa school administrators are exploring the practice.

It can pair especially well with competency-based education, she added, which the collaborative defines as “learners advance through content or earn credit based on demonstration of proficiency of competencies,” and is at the core of the Cedar Rapids and College Community School District partnership Iowa BIG.

The broader goal of departing from the conventional grading system — though the associate superintendent noted that letters and grade-point averages aren’t going anywhere any time soon — is to reduce the subjectivity and gaps inherent in having teachers evaluate students.

“Every teacher has different things they’re looking for when a student writes a paper,” Pickering said. “Some teachers provide more opportunities for tests and quizzes. Some factor in behavior and attendance. Some do not.

“All of those things make traditional grading kind of a mishmash.”

By removing those inconsistencies and focusing largely on what students know, when they learn it and how well they apply it, the idea is that grades will more accurately reflect subject knowledge.

In practice

The Iowa City Community School District uses standards-based grading at the elementary level, as does the Marion Independent School District. Instructors in the Marion system are doing professional development about implementing it for middle-schoolers.

Clear Creek Amana Community School District continues to use standards-based grading elements in its middle school while College Community weaves portions of the practice in all levels. Instead of standards-based grading, Linn-Mar High School is moving toward reporting student proficiency on standards in addition to providing final letter grades.

The Solon Community School District just completed an at-times controversial two-year phased implementation of standards-based grading at the middle- and high-school levels. Elementary instructors have used the system for decades, said Director of Instruction and Technology Matt Townsley.

“This year was really good. Last year, when we were just starting out, some parents and students had concerns about it,” he said. “I think the last three-quarters of the year has been really good, aside from that hiccup.”

Some staff members initially balked at the change.

“Had you asked me at the beginning of my first year of implementing this, I would’ve been the individual banging my fists on the table in a violent manner saying, ‘I don’t like change,’” said Joshua Koza, a visual art instructor at Solon High School, who has used the system in his classes for two years and hasn’t seen a significant change in final grade distribution. “I think most educators will go through that.”

Koza now prefers standards-based grading because of its heightened accuracy, though students still receive letter grades.

“It weeds out a lot of the noise in assessment,” Koza said. “If I ran a traditional grading system that allowed students to circumvent understanding concepts by getting extra credit or doing homework or penalizing them for a low score on a test I only let them take once, that student can go to college without understanding what they should’ve gotten in high school ... .

“In standards-based grading, the real focus, the point is that we’re holding these kids accountable no matter how long it takes them. We want them leaving the classroom with knowledge of the material.” De-emphasizing factors such as homework completion or rewarding extra credit for things such as bringing boxes of tissues to class — an example many people interviewed for this story cited — may allow more focus on content mastery. But the classroom still remains one of the first places where people first learn the importance and consequences of being organized and meeting deadlines.

“A lot of times teachers will say, ‘We need to be teaching responsibility. Being punctual when turning in assignments is an important skill,’ to which I agree, but that’s very different from achievement,” said Thomas Guskey, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Kentucky’s College of Education and a proponent of standards-based grading.

Guskey advocated for instructors to provide multiple equally weighted grades to reflect process, progress and product.

“You don’t have to try and combine them into one indicator,” he said. “It’d be like combining height and weight when neither one tells you the whole story. Each one separate is much more meaningful.”

Taking shape

Pickering could not provide a number of how many Cedar Rapids teachers are deviating from traditional grading. But he estimated at least 60 have attended meetings to develop Learner-Centered Assessment and Reporting, which uses a four-point scale to evaluate student work and attempts to standardize the various practices instructors have used to gauge student progress.

Teachers will award zeros for “no evidence exists to make a judgment,” Pickering explained.

Elementary schoolteachers in the district have been using a standards-based grading system for many years, but that didn’t smooth the transition for seventh-grade teacher Jessica Vasquez’s Harding Middle School students.

“It was a huge change for all of them actually,” said the science and social studies instructor, who experimented with standards-based grading elements before fully adopting it during the most recent academic year. “As much as I thought that they would recognize that they did, many of them did not know that they were using standards-based grading in elementary school.

“That was kind of a shock for me. It was a definite adjustment period for them for sure.”

Once students and parents shed what she called the “I did everything I was supposed to do. Why am I not getting an ‘A’” mentality, the grading system yielded positive results for learners at all levels.

“Oftentimes the most compliant students are the ones who get ‘A’s but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the most knowledgeable,” Vasquez said.

Cedar Rapids instructors will continue giving students letter grades just as their Solon counterparts do — though some would like to see that change.

“Honestly that’s probably the most detrimental thing in standards-based grading,” Vasquez said. “It takes students’ focus away from what they know and to what grade they want.”

Koza has attempted to steer his students away from that thinking.

“Unfortunately, until we have a nationwide paradigm shift, a shift in thinking and philosophy, we can’t escape the fact that we are expected to give our students letter grades,” he said. “I make my best attempt to communicate to the students that the focus should be, ‘Do you understand this content?’ It shouldn’t be, ‘Do I have an ‘A’ in the class?’”

Standards-based grading glossary

•Competency-based education — A format in which students progress through concepts by showing proficiency. The Cedar Rapids Community School District is one of 10 districts in the Iowa l Competency-Based Education Collaborative.

•Learner-Centered Assessment and Reporting — The four-point scale that teachers in the Cedar Rapids Community School District can opt to use in 2014-2015 to evaluate student work. Instructors who use the system, which includes zeros for work that is insufficient for evaluation, still will award letter grades.

•Standards-based grading — A system in which instructors gauge student performance based on subject knowledge. Standards-based grading often focuses on proficiency as opposed to awarding points for things such as behavior, participation and homework.

•Traditional grading — The commonly used system in which teachers create their own weighted formulas, including a range of factors, to award letter grades.

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