CEDAR RAPIDS — Moving away from traditional letter grades in schools can improve student achievement and engagement, educators said Monday at a grading conference.
The event centered on standards-based grading, a small but growing movement in Iowa education that seeks to replace — or at least supplement — letter grades with more information about how much a student has learned.
Letter grades — A, B, C and so on — are based too much on non-essential information like participation and behavior, proponents of standards-based grading say.
Instead, they argue, teachers should measure how well students understand each topic and give students another chance when they don't get something right the first time.
“Traditional grades attempt to capture an amount of information that muddies what students have done and what they've learned,” said Matt Townsley, the Solon Community School District's director of instruction and technology. “We want to have a grade that captures what they've learned.”
Standards-based grading has become more widespread in Corridor schools recently.
The Solon district is in its third year of fully implementing the system in grades five through 12, said high school principal Nathan Wear. Wear and Townsley helped organize the conference.
The Clear Creek-Amana Community School District also has implemented the system for some grade levels. The College Community School District uses some parts of it, and some teachers in Cedar Rapids use it.
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Another reason to use standards-based grading, advocates said, is to de-emphasize the ideas that school is a competition and that the reward of a good grade or score on a test is what motivates students.
“I sort of feel like points are like doggy treats,” said Cathy Vatterott, the conference's keynote speaker and an associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “We've dangled these things in front of kids.”
That shift led to some opposition among Solon parents in 2012, particularly those whose students' grades worsened in the new system.
“What we want to say is well, your kid never should have gotten an 'A,'” Wear said. Standards-based grades are more rigorous, he said.
More than 200 people representing 35 school districts attended the conference, which was hosted by the Grant Wood Area Education Agency.
Schools might never be able to completely do away with letter grades, Wear said. But they should focus as much as possible on proficiency.
“If I could get high schools to get rid of (letter) grades, that would be a step in the right direction,” Wear said. “If we're still going to work within that system, we want that 'A' to mean they're learning at a rigorous level.”