Letter grades ‘standard’-bearers no more

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First-grade teacher Marty White helps Nicolas Phillips sort beans to illustrate addition and subtraction problems at Chandlers Elementary School (Logan County). Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 9, 2012
First-grade teacher Marty White helps Nicolas Phillips sort beans to illustrate addition and subtraction problems at Chandlers Elementary School (Logan County). Photo by Amy Wallot, Jan. 9, 2012

By Matthew Tungate

If a team of professors from the University of Kentucky’s College of Education had its way, Kentucky students would be graded only on their academic achievement – not whether or not they turn in all their homework or bring in tissues for extra credit.

The three have worked with dozens of school districts in the state and published an article calling for schools to use standards-based grading rather than a single percentage or letter grade. Standards-based grading requires teachers to list individual areas of knowledge within a subject area or course and assign a level of proficiency or mastery to each area for each student. It also requires splitting grades into academic factors, such as assessment results, and process factors, such as behavior and turning in homework.

Education Professor Thomas Guskey stresses the increased honesty and meaning this brings to grading. With traditional approaches to grading that combine everything into a single symbol, a student may ace the Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams in calculus, for instance, but get a C in the subject because he didn’t do the homework, Guskey said. Another student also may get a C by turning in all the homework and being compliant with teacher requests without learning the subject and doing poorly on tests, he said.

“They both get Cs, but when you consider performance on that external exam, their level of achievement is quite different,” Guskey said. “I could be convinced that the first student may have acted in an irresponsible way. I can’t be convinced that student deserved a C in calculus, however, not after scoring so well on a rigorous, high-quality external exam. That’s the honesty that we’re trying to bring to reporting.”

Guskey and his colleagues, assistant professor Gerry Swan and associate professor Lee Ann Jung, working with Kentucky educators, have developed standards-based report cards for elementary and middle/high schools that separate grades into three areas: product, process and progress.

“The idea is that in a typical grade we combine so many diverse elements that it’s really hard to make sense of it,” he said.

Product is the “culminating demonstration of learning,” which is an accurate representation of what students can do at the time of the report, Guskey said. The UK team gives scores from 1, meaning struggling to master the concept, to 4, meaning exemplary mastery of the concept. On the middle/high school report card, teachers also can give a letter grade.

Guskey said he and his colleagues have been collecting horror stories from districts about what they let influence letter grades. For instance, some elementary schools allow extra credit for bringing in supplies like tissues or glue. One district told him that its high school students get hall passes at the beginning of the year to go to the restroom during class. If they don’t use all of their hall passes, students can turn them in at the end of the year for extra credit.

“This means that if you want to be valedictorian, you can’t go to the bathroom,” Guskey said.

Guskey and his team advocate removing anything except assessments, exhibits and projects from this score. Other items, such as preparation, homework, respect and punctuality would be part of process grades, indicated with a minus for rare, a plus for moderately and two pluses for consistently meets the expectation.

Those factors should not be used to measure a child’s academic achievement, he said.

“Not that they’re unimportant,” Guskey said. “You need to be able to distinguish from the irresponsible high-achieving kid versus the very responsible, trying-hard, low-achieving kid.”

Each type of student has different classroom needs, and teachers need to identify that, he said.

“So those kids who are not performing well in terms of their academic performance, but are very compliant and well-behaved, try really hard and do extra credit, are not going to have those traits represented in an achievement grade any longer,” Guskey said.

The third area of the proposed report cards is progress, indicating a learning gain. The report cards achieve this through a narrative.

“Instead of saying, ‘Your kid’s doing about average work in math,’ the teacher might say, ‘In math, here’s the things your child is doing well, here’s the areas where she’s struggling, these are the things we want to do to help her in that area and here are the things you can do at home,’” Guskey said.

Guskey said his team started on the project in 2009 by meeting with educators from the Boyle, Fayette and Oldham County school districts. All three districts were independently investigating standards-based reporting and were seeking guidance.

They met for three days and, using the then-newly adopted Common Core Standards in mathematics and language arts and standards from professional organizations in other subject areas, developed reporting strands. Guskey said research has found that when teachers are required to report based on standards, it changes their teaching.

“To make sure they have evidence on each of the standards, teachers are aligning their assessments with those standards,” he said. “When you change the reporting, it presses teachers to move their instruction in the same direction.”

Several districts have piloted versions of the new report cards

Chandlers Elementary (Logan County) piloted a standards-based report card (SBRC) in spring 2010 after hearing Swan at a conference, Principal Elisa Brown said.

Each student received specific feedback as well as a letter grade on each of the standards, she said. Parents and students were able to see that they mastered, were making progress or were not progressing on each standard taught that grading period. The school also sent home its regular grade card printed from Infinite Campus as a comparison for parents. Parents then completed a survey for Swan on their impressions, she said. 

“Overall parents liked seeing what students had been learning and how they were progressing. The only concern from parents was they did not like the letter grade only on the SBRC. They really wanted to see the (percentage) grade as well. It makes a difference to parents if it was an A at 99 vs. an A at 93. And this would be a very easy fix, as it was the only thing that was a complaint,” Brown said.

“We felt like that the SBRC provided an easier way to communicate student attainment or mastery of the standards taught during the grading period. For example, instead of an A in math, this SBRC explained what comprised the A,” she continued. “Teachers felt this type of reporting was, in their words, ‘the best thing ever.’ They were able to more accurately assess students by the standards toward mastery, and it lays the foundation for differentiated instruction. We felt that if it was used long-term as a replacement to the traditional grading method, parents would be more informed of what their children know and don’t know, what they need help with or where they are really excelling. We found that parents engaged the teachers in more conversation based on what they had read on the SBRC.”

The school only used the report card that semester as part of Swan’s research, but teachers have continued reporting progress toward meeting the new Common Core Standards in a similar manner internally, Brown said. This year, teachers send home the traditional report card, but they also send home updates on how students are progressing toward meeting the standards being taught in those units throughout the nine weeks.

“I feel that with the emphasis on formative and summative assessment, standards-based reporting is the next logical step,” she said.

Miles Elementary (Erlanger-Elsmere Independent) replaced grades with standards on report cards for the 2009-10 school year (as appeared in this article in Kentucky Teacher).

Then-Principal Bryant Gillis has since moved to Tichenor Middle School (Erlanger-Elsmere Independent), where he is implementing standards-based teaching and reporting with Guskey’s, Jung’s and Swan’s help. Two of his teachers have worked very closely with Guskey in particular, Gillis said.

Tichenor parents received a traditional report card following the first nine weeks of school this year, he said. But mathematics, social studies and some language arts teachers gave standards-based grades for the second report card, Gillis said.

“The thing it does most is that the student, in the past, really didn’t know what an A, a B or a C meant,” he said. “I think with the standards, the students as well as the parent know exactly where they are, where they need to be and the narrative of how they’re going to get there.

“When (standards-based grading) comes in, a child knows exactly where he is. Before, if you had 30 points extra credit, if you were great and you did your homework but you bombed every assessment, you could still be a B student. Now you can’t do that,” Gillis added. “I think it’s actually raised the rigor of our students and our curriculum. And I think it’s caused our teachers to be accountable to look at the rigor and look at what we’re doing.”

For the teachers, “it focuses the learning.” Teachers deconstruct the standard so they know what they have to teach and know what they have to do every day.

“It’s almost like a task analysis,” he said.

However, even some who agree with the concept of standards-based reporting have found it difficult to implement.

Carole Hancock, director of Curriculum and Instruction for the Pulaski County school district, said Guskey has presented to staff in her district twice, and he had a big effect.

The district formed a report card committee last year to look at standards-based grading. As the group began to look at the requirements of standards-based grading and reporting, “we realized how much we didn’t know,” she said.

Teachers took a survey for Swan, and it came back with mixed reviews, Hancock said.

“Some said, ‘Oh this would take so much time it would be extremely overwhelming,’” she said. “Some teachers really liked it and said, ‘Yes, this is the direction we would like to go.’”

Ultimately, district leadership decided to focus on integrating the new core content standards first, as well as improving their current grading practices and use of formative assessments, and improving reporting the new grades in Infinite Campus.

“We’re kind of on hold at this point,” Hancock said.

The district will revisit the idea after teachers are more comfortable with the new standards, she said.

“We just discovered there’s a lot more to think about than what first meets the eye when we’re trying to move to such a system,” Hancock said.

Guskey said he and his colleagues have been inundated with requests from schools and districts to work with them on standards-based teaching and learning, and he expects 12-15 districts to adopt their report cards in the next year. Educators in Wisconsin, Minnesota and North Carolina have requested proposals for implementing standards-based report cards in their states.

“We believe it’s not only a model for Kentucky, we believe it’s a model for the nation,” Guskey said.

MORE INFO …
Grades that mean something article
Thomas Guskey, guskey@uky.edu (859) 257-5748

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