How COVID increased the urgency to revamp K-12’s approach to grading

Students will pursue more clearly defined learning targets and get more details on their progress.
By: | March 21, 2022
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Nearly one-third of students in grades three through 12 earned at least one F on their report cards while Santa Fe Public Schools was on remote instruction.

Students had points deducted from their grades not just for poor academic work but also for not turning on their cameras or participating in discussions or for behaving in other ways that teachers felt disrupted lessons. Coming out of the pandemic, however, administrators recognized that a system that measured students on compliance and behavior was not as fair as it could be and also didn’t measure academic growth sufficiently, Superintendent Hilario “Larry” Chavez Jr. says.

The district’s solution involves a wholesale shift to standards-based grading, an approach that is not new to the U.S. education system but gaining new momentum in the wake of the inequities exposed during the pandemic. “The grading system has not been changed more than 100 years,” Chavez says. “When you look at zero-to-59, which is an F, it’s really weighted toward failure. It’s not fair to students.”

The zero-to-four scale of a standards-based system is more equitable because it is solely based on whether students are meeting grade-level standards, Deputy Superintendent Vanessa Romero says. It is also designed to provide teachers, students and parents with more information about why a particular learner isn’t meeting the standards.

A task force comprising assistant superintendents, principals and teachers used a test server with fake students to experiment with weighting standards. This included creating a conversion table that translated the standards-based scale into a grade point average for college transcripts and other purposes.

Santa Fe’s 28 schools are now at various stages of transition. Some schools have transitioned fully, having offered extensive professional development over the last year-and-a-half and updating their software systems to the new grading scale. Others are taking more time to make the change over the next two years. Ultimately, it should cement consistency across the district; so, for example, earning a “two” on a standard in a second-grade class means the same thing across the entire district.

Chavez and Romero say the concept has been propelled by strong support from teachers and principals. “We really do feel it is going to provide immediate feedback to students to become proficient,” Chavez says. “If I scored a one, how do I score a two? The rubric will show a student the learning that should be taking place within a classroom.”

Correcting a grading disconnect

The pandemic kicked The School District of Wisconsin Dells’ transition to standards-based grading into high gear though teachers began working “essential standards” as early as 2015 and recently outlined “super standards,” say principals Casey Whitehurst and Hugh Gaston III, who have been spearheading the transition.

Whitehurst, principal of Wisconsin Dells Middle School, and Gaston, principal of Wisconsin Dells High School, will fully implement the approach for the 2022-2023 school year after extensive professional development for educators. Students will now work toward learning targets that are clearly defined and aligned to state standards. They will also have multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency, with ample and detailed feedback on specific areas of improvement from teachers, the principals say.

The system will provide parents and families with a fuller picture of a students’ learning progression, which should give them more confidence in helping their children achieve their academic targets. Another goal for the district is to increase consistency in grading practices across teachers and schools. “There has been a disconnect between what a student truly knows, understands and is able to do and their actual grade,” Whitehurst and Gaston say. “Some learners might need a bit more time to master essential concepts. With traditional grading, early struggles are held against them based on the averaging of points.”

When it comes to college and career readiness, standards-based learning also allows teachers to emphasize the soft skills necessary for post-high school success. Teachers can better measure critical thinking, problem-solving, communication and collaboration skills. “Traditional grading has been focused on completion using a more rigid timeline and averaging numbers over time,” the principals say. “Standards-based learning focuses less on the ‘when’ and more on whether or not the defined level of proficiency has been achieved.”

‘No one should be surprised’

Proficiency and competency are key to the grading shifts taking place across the U.S. education system. The nonprofit Building21 uses an equity-based, competency model in the two public high schools it operates in Philadelphia and Allentown, Pennsylvania. Students work to achieve a set of competencies, each of which has a detailed learning progression with related skills, says Sandra Moumoutjis, executive director of the nonprofit’s Learning Innovation Network.

One problem the organization is trying to solve is that traditional grading isn’t sufficiently transparent. That’s because one of a student’s teachers may stress homework and class participation while another counts work habits and behavior.  “You don’t really know how grades get calculated and you don’t know what grades mean,” Moumoutjis says. “By creating these competencies and progressions, everywhere a student goes in a day they’re being rated exactly the same, they know what’s expected of them, and no one should be surprised by the rating they’re getting.”

The approach should also significantly reduce the impact of a bad grade that, under traditional systems, can “tank” a student’s GPA to the extent that they cannot recover. In a sense, traditional grading penalized students for growth while the new systems don’t set deadlines for when a student has to learn something, Moumoutjis says.

Competency- and equity-based systems boost equity by allowing educators to create ever-more personalized growth targets for students with disabilities and English learners. They can also build the confidence of struggling students. Many schools are building the standards- and competency-based systems into the profiles of a graduate to create a clear picture of what skills and competencies students will have acquired when they complete high school.

“One of the most exciting things for learners who come in much lower than expected, who used to get D’s and lower grades, is now being rewarded and seeing growth and progress,” Moumoutjis says. “We don’t have to think about failing kids.”