A standards-based assessment of
By Eva Nelson, Reporter, Selene Dalinis, Reporter, & Mackenzie Guadagno, Managing Editor
Editor’s Note: All quotes are from real students at VHS. Their grades are accurate for background information, but their names have been changed to pseudonyms to protect their identities. The information we have gathered and presented before you is factual, but the grades we have given each ‘standard’ is our own opinion.
Standards-based Grading or SBG is a progressive grading system that was enacted in the 2017-2018 school year. Since its implementation, SBG has raised controversy from students, parents and faculty alike. SBG allows teachers to grade multiple standards using a variety of assessments with the intent of these grades representing a true understanding of the material. Assignments are graded using a 0-4 number system—with 0 being the lowest or incomplete, and 4 being “exceeded standard.”
Vashon Island School District—VISD—superintendent, Dr. Slade McSheehy, describes the system as one that provides clarity to students.
“It’s a system where students understand what the standards are,” McSheehy said.
However, for many students, parents and teachers, clarity is what they feel like the system is lacking the most. In a Riptide survey sent out to the school, over one third of those who responded stated that they did not understand the grading system. When asked to describe the system, students were not afraid to be honest.
“Teachers get to pick a number between 1 and 4 based on very cloudy and arbitrary reasoning and that number determines your grade,” one of the student responses said.
This lack of transparency in this grading system has caused confusion and disparities for many. An aspect of SBG, the trendline, is a feature of Skyward that students and teachers find puzzling.
Standard one: The trendline
SBG was first introduced at VHS with the intent to be a more equitable replacement for students that were previously struggling with school. The trendline aspect of SBG allows students to be graded by their improvement overtime rather than an average.
The fundamental purpose of the trendline was for students to be rewarded with a higher grade when their quality of work reflected educational growth.
In many ways SBG was successful in this respect. Standardized test results were coming back higher so it was assumed that more students were learning effectively.
“We see more success in students on AP tests. So there hasn’t been a decline of learning since we’ve started standards-based assessment,” McSheehy said.
In addition to higher test scores, teachers report that this grading system has also created an environment for students to learn to a point of mastery rather than to meet a particular milestone to achieve their grade. This is because of how SBG changed the teacher’s mindset in the classroom.
“It’s changed [the] conversations I have with my students from ‘What can I do to improve my grade?’ to ‘What can I learn, or what can I improve on to improve my grade?’” history teacher Heather Miller said.
Before SBG even if retakes were offered, they didn’t have the same effect on students’ grades. And oftentimes, retakes weren’t included in the curriculum.
“It’s always been really painful to me as a math teacher to have students come in and take an assessment and maybe that day is just really awful for them or they don’t quite have it and then a day later I see that they have it now, but their grade is already set,” math teacher Lisa Miller said.
SBG, however, allows for this to change. Students can significantly improve their grade when they show improvement in a retake. Students find this to be helpful and make a positive difference in their learning overall.
“The system of being able to retake stuff is really helpful,” Lauren said.
Students and staff find that retakes are a helpful part of the trendline because the overall grade reflects the improvement shown in the retake. Compared to an average between the original and the retake assessment.
“In a system where you would have averaged [the grades], a student may have got a 50 percent, 75 percent, and 100 percent; the old system would have had them average at 75 percent, but at the end of it, they could do it all as a student. They could [achieve] 100 percent,” science teacher Kathleen Regovich said.
SBG creates opportunities for students in situations like these. If students are able to prove that they know the material, SBG reflects that in a way that a grading average could not. However, because the system works this way, students can strategically place their effort throughout the semester to get the highest grade with the least amount of work possible.
This tactic does not necessarily increase learning; it only increases their grade.
“I put more effort in at the end of the semester, definitely, because I know those grades are final,” Nicholas said.
Skyward’s predictive grading structure is what allows for these work-arounds. However, predictive grading isn’t necessarily a SBG-specific problem, but rather it is a facet of the Skyward algorithm.
“Let’s say [a student] gets a 3 and then a 2 and then the gradebook [predicts that] they’re at a 1,” Lisa Miller said.
The gradebook will behave like this because Skyward will see a decline in the trendline. Students who don’t work-around the system find themselves stressed at the end of the semester because they are worried about how their trendline will look to Skyward’s algorithm.
“Say I do really well on three tests and then the fourth one I bomb. My grade is going to go down a lot. Even though it’s only one test,” London said.
Students are stuck in this ongoing dilemma and the calculated final grade is often inaccurate. It either reflects a student working around the system or potentially getting a much lower grade than they deserve.
The trendline: 3
The concept of the trendline is an admiral one. And the system generally works well. With further exploration of SBG at VHS, we found that the trendline isn’t really the problem in this respect, but Skyward is. Therefore, the trendline is reaching standard; it does the job without going further in preventing students from working around it.
Standard two: Skyward
Skyward’s trendline is a feature of SBG that a lot of VHS teachers find difficult to use, but have little control over. Teachers end up having to manually change the grades in order to make sure that students are receiving grades that are accurate depictions of a student’s ability.
The process teachers go through when manually changing grades is tedious and highly subjective. However, the manual changes made are not a surprise to students.
“I think every teacher says that they are having to tweak things to make it accurate to your grade,” Sydney said.
Teachers do their best to ensure that students are getting accurate feedback through their grades; however, with Skyward’s predictive grading, this is a lot of extra work on teachers. Each core class has about 27 students per period and about 5 periods a day. If teachers manually change grades at the end of every semester, that’s 270 grades to change every year. Unfortunately, many teachers end up having to change them more than this.
“For me, it is very interactive,” Lisa Miller said. “I’m watching what’s happening [in Skyward] so students are [constantly aware of their actual grade].”
Lisa Miller finds herself changing grades manually by unit rather than by semester.
In the Riptide survey sent out to VHS, all teachers who responded reported that they manually adjust their final grades. Heather Miller expresses that in the past they haven’t had another option.
“We just haven’t been presented with an alternative [to manually adjusting grades],” Heather Miller said.
Skyward on its own has been a fine system up until Standards-based Grading was implemented. But the predictive grading feature is unnecessary work for teachers and too unpredictable. Skyward does not meet standard, but is approaching proficiency.
Standard three: The English department
One of the biggest complaints for SBG is how it functions outside of STEM classes, more specifically in the English department. This standard is primarily based on how SBG operates in different departments and how that adaptability affects teachers and students at VHS.
For starters, a 2.5 translates to a B- in letter grades and a 3 translates to an A- which has made it more difficult to grade students accurately, but this is particularly frustrating to English teachers.
“There’s this huge gap between a B- and an A-. It begs credulity and it’s kind of absurd,” English teacher Kevin McLaren said.
This is a big gap compared to the previous letter grade system. McLaren even tried to get the system changed so he could use a 2.75 or a 3.25 in his grading—in hopes that his students could have a more accurate grade—but he was quickly turned down.
“It’s gonna be a district-wide decision to [add 0.25 and 0.75] I’m told, and this works better for STEM classes,” McLaren said.
What McLaren was told by district officials is shown to be true. SBG varies significantly between departments and seems to function the least effectively in humanities classes, like English. Many students feel that this inconsistency creates confusion for them in the classroom.
“There’s not a lot of clarity on how grades are calculated outside of math,” Lauren said.
One of the reasons for SBG’s success in STEM classes is their ability to have multiple assessments in one standard which is key for the trendline to work effectively.
Since STEM classes are able to accommodate the algorithm’s requirements, the results are generally more accurate, and so SBG works. However, some departments may have difficulties meeting this expectation.
“If you have a content area where there aren’t a lot of assessments, then the trendline isn’t going to be very effective,” McSheehy said.
Teachers aim for this goal, but unless they’re teaching a STEM-based curriculum, it can be hard to achieve.
“If we don’t have time to write three essays, it [can be] challenging. The goal is always to have three, [but] if I can have more, I will, because the more data [points there are], the more accurate the grade comes out,” Heather Miller said.
Another example, English classes also cannot meet this expectation because English isn’t a class that is
built to have retakes. However, retakes are a key aspect of SBG.
“So retakes are tough in English. I want to be able to give them. But again, I can’t just give someone another novel, right? It’s too big a lift,” McLaren said.
English Department: 2
SBG works really well for STEM classes and for the most part there are very little problems to uncover. But when it comes to the English department, SBG is far from proficient. With a combination between the two, this standard gets an ‘approaching proficient.’
Standard four: Consistency
The trendline has strengths and weaknesses, specifically how it works differently for various classes or departments. This is one of the many inconsistencies present within the district’s grading system.
These kinds of inconsistencies, without proper communication, generate issues for teachers and students.
“If you don’t have people implementing the change in the same way, then that leads to confusion and miscommunication,” McSheehy said.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what’s happening at VHS. A Riptide survey filled out by 10 teachers at VHS shows that half the teachers use the trend line and half do not. Students’ comments reflect this feeling that SBG varies from teacher to teacher.
“I think I understand how it is supposed to be used, but the teachers don’t all use it the same,” Sydney said.
Along with recognizing how confusing grading systems currently are, many students wish for better explanation from staff members—specifically around the weight of certain grades in their gradebook. Some students wish for teachers to explain to students how grades correlate with the trendline so he knows ahead of time what grade he needs to aim for.
“Maybe explain as the year progresses, which assignments are going to be the keystone ones that affect my grade the most,” London said.
The lack of communication to accommodate for the inconsistencies in grading between departments is not the only concern students have. Being graded on the 0 through 4 scale feels unnecessary when it is eventually translated into letter grades.
“Even if you say you want to keep the trendline and keep retakes, why is 0 to 4 even necessary? That doesn’t make sense,” Lauren said.
Students and teachers alike have noticed how SBG’s 0 to 4 doesn’t easily correlate to state-required letter grades, transcripts, and the GPA system.
“Colleges want GPAs and they want GPAs based on letter grades,” Regovich said.
The shift from traditional grading to SBG has been difficult in many ways, and these inconsistencies within the ways it has been implemented does not help.
“Any time you move a system and try to change, you have a couple of problems,” McSheehy said. “Everybody has to understand what the change is, and then everybody has to implement the change in the same way.”
Consistency is vital when implementing progressive change, yet consistency seems to be what SBG lacks the most. Again, SBG’s functionality with STEM classes saves it from a lower grade, but unfortunately it is still far from proficient when it comes to consistency.
A final note: What can we do moving forward?
Although difficult to understand at times, many feel that SBG has potential to be an effective grading system for VHS. With better communication and more consistent grading, many believe SBG can be a more efficient system to use.
“I feel like we spend a lot of time fighting [SBG] rather than figuring out what’s good about it and what’s working or if there is critique what specifically isn’t working,” Lisa Miller said.
If there is more constructive criticism, then maybe real change can be made to SBG at VHS. Teachers and students have offered examples for what specifically can change to make the system function better for
all students and staff.
“I feel like the numbers, they don’t correlate well when you translate them to a grade. Like, a 2.5 is a B- versus the 3 is an A-. I feel like that’s a lot different,” Sydney said.
Because some students and teachers believe this jump is too big in the grade book, certain teachers have found solutions to this problem. McLaren talks about the 1-4 scale and how he thinks certain things could change specifically to benefit the English department.
“I would like an open conversation about changing a few things, like the 0.75 and 0.25 would be really useful for English,” McLaren said. “But we’ve had pushback on that.”
This is only one example of solutions for SBG-related problems that students and staff have come up with. If requests from staff and students like these can be heard and effectively and consistently implemented by district officials, VHS can move closer to a more functional system. The problem with inconsistencies across departments is addressed by Lisa Miller.
“I’ve taught for 20 years; grading has been different from teacher to teacher. So there should be some sameness, like everyone is doing SBG, but it’s getting implemented differently,” Lisa Miller said.
These inconsistencies between teachers will be there regardless of the system being used because of different teaching styles. Students can learn to accommodate for this by communicating with teachers about what needs more clarity in the classroom.
“I would like to see students collaborate more with teachers in terms of what’s working and what’s not working,” McSheehy said.
While SBG doesn’t necessarily need to be abandoned entirely, both students and staff have a plethora of complaints. In order to find success, VISD staff should look to the community for feedback if they want to see improvement at VHS.