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How Some Louisville Teachers are Shifting Grading Practices and Redefining Success

Students and parents are often concerned with bad grades. Grades say a lot to colleges and universities and high scores on college entrance exams such as the ACT and SAT are important for getting into certain schools.

Depending on the teacher, points can be earned for class participation, going the extra mile to make visual presentations or through extra credit, among other measures.

That’s the way grading has been done the past century; educators including Brown School Principal Tim Healy say it should change.

“The old system is a way to guarantee kids that have a work ethic will pass a class. If they have a work ethic they’re going to pass. It never guaranteed competency,” he says

The old system is, to many teachers and schools, the current grading system. Local districts set grading policies and in JCPS and most Kentucky school districts that includes traditional practices that aren’t aligned with standards-based learning.

But when Kentucky adopted the new Unbridled Learning accountability system it shifted the way we were meant to think about education.

It’s not only important students memorize material and pass tests, but they must be able to think critically and show they can use that knowledge in practice, thus meeting certain standards set out by the ‘common core‘ and others like Advanced Placement.

The way most teachers grade nationwide does not reflected that.

“Standards-base grading is trying to get away from just a collection of points that add up to some total, to does a child know what they’re doing in this topic and is ready and successful to move on,” says Erin Schneider, a math teacher at Atherton High School.

There are several challenges to moving to standards-based learning—available resources and time for professional development, for example—but many JCPS teachers are trying to figure out how standards-based learning will factor into their grading.

“Does a student who never does his homework, should he fail?” asks Schneider.

The answer for some teachers is, "No" — if the student shows a level of competency through other measures. But a student’s grade could have a different meaning depending on the school and depending on the teacher.

Brown English teacher Deidre Grassi is among several JCPS teachers who say she is trying to adopt a more standards-based approach to her grading. She acknowledges this could change which students are successful and she says parents must buy in to the concept.

“Traditionally, their student has been an A student because they’ve done all the work and turned it in on time. Now with standards-based [grading], they might be a C or D student because they’re not hitting that standard at the level that we have,” she says.

University of Kentucky professor Thomas Guskey is a national expert in standards-based grading and is working with educators in other states like Minnesota who are interested in moving that direction.

A few years ago, three Kentucky school districts worked with Guskey to offer parents both traditional and standards-based report cards. Then, they surveyed the parents asking them to choose.

“We’re going to send you only one, but you get to pick. Whichever one you want is the one we’ll keep sending you,” he says. “All the parents chose the new one.”

In a 2011 report titled “Grades That Mean Something” Guskey says teachers in the three school districts that piloted the new grading system were “nearly unanimous in agreeing that the standards-based reports provided better and clearer information, and that families found them easy to understand.”

Guskey says standards-based report cards offer parents more detailed information and better communicates what a student knows.

It can also include separate grades for homework, and other measurements without combining those into a single grade. Guskey says several other countries are already doing this and he says their teachers report it's actually less work on the teacher. But in Guskey's report he does note teachers surveyed said that the report cards did require more time.

To give a sense of how standards-based grading works, teachers could give a student a one if they're “struggling" to meet a certain standard or a four if the student shows “exemplary” knowledge of the standard. Teachers can average the scores at the end of the grading period to get the final grade.

But Guskey says tradition in the U.S. has held strong over nearly a century, which has made change difficult.

“My dad was recently going through his attic and found my grandmothers report card and that looks so similar I was shocked," he says.

The Kentucky Department of Education is supporting new efforts led by Guskey to develop a new standards-based grading system. There are now 20 districts that have shown an interest in piloting the report cards. Guskey says this includes new technology to replace the state’s online grading program, which he calls antiquated.

In the 2011 report, Guskey writes of the project, “we hope this will provide the basis for statewide implementation in three to five years.”

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