District to implement mandatory switch to standards based grading
By Mari Kanagy, Publishing Editor & Elizabeth Lande, Copy Editor
In 2013, the high school taught it’s first class using standards-based grading as part of Skyward’s trial for reporting grades using the system. Now, six years later, the whole district is transitioning to the system, with plans to officially implement it in all middle and high school classes by the fall of 2020.
Some Vashon teachers have adopted standards-based grading in their classrooms over the past few years, but the district’s collective shift comes behind a national trend. As early as 2009, schools across the U.S. began to move away from a traditional 100-point grade book toward the standards-based system.
“Many of our surrounding school districts — Highline, Tacoma, some schools within Seattle public — have made district-level shifts in standards-based grading, so we’re plodding along behind them,” principal Danny Rock said.
The mandated implementation of standards-based will be stricter than the school’s current policy of allowing teachers to choose which grading system they prefer, but it is designed to give teachers some freedom in how they implement standards-based in their classroom.
“[Teachers] are gonna determine what it means to get a three or four, … how many times students can reassess, when they do their assessments, etc.,” Rock said.
State law requires that high schools use letter grades for students’ transcripts, so all standards-based grades need to be calculated into letter grades based on the 100 point scale in Skyward. Teachers must use the district-approved calculation from standards based to letter grades, but it is up to teachers within each department — such as English, science, social studies, and math — to determine what level of work merits each number grade.
The general principle of standards-based grading is to accurately assess a student’s knowledge and mastery of a subject by dividing the subject into categories called standards. The scale for grading is one through four, with a level four score demonstrating complete mastery of the standard.
The level of competency per standard is determined based on student test performance, with opportunities to reassess on specific skills depending on how the student performed. Standards-based grading also places less emphasis on the completion of homework, often categorizing it and in-class assignments under a “work habits” standard.
The final decision for the district to mandate a complete transition was made by Rock, with the approval of superintendent Slade McSheehy at a staff meeting last spring. The decision stems partially from Rock’s previous experience as a history teacher, during which he felt that the traditional grading system was lacking in evaluating student work.
“One of the first powerful memories I had as a teacher was assessing student work and assigning a grade to it, and realizing that, at the end of the day, that was a subjective experience,” Rock said.
The decision was also largely based on the school district’s increasing focus on equity, as the administration expects the grading system to help shrink the achievement gap between students of color, poor students, and students with disabilities from other students by changing assessment practices.
“Over the last 19 years of being a high school educator, I’ve seen how difficult it is for teachers to differentiate for the needs of students in their classroom,” Rock said. “What I have observed is that part of what gets in their way is the assessment practices that we engage in. How we’ve set up the [standards-based] grade book, in a sense, to require students to move in a chronological way through the content, and to show the mastery when they’re supposed to.”
McSheehy echoed this sentiment.
“If everyone is successful in the implementation, students are getting assessed on what they’re able to know and be able to do and meeting standards, rather than completing exercises like homework or extra credit or exercises that typically benefit the students that are white or have parents that are educated,” McSheehy said.
Some teachers support the switch to standards-based largely because of its focus on equity.
“If half the grade of the class is based on going home and doing homework, you’re making false assumptions that students have internet access or students have a place to do their homework or students have that home support to have them … be successful,” government teacher Jason Butler said. “If that’s half their grade, then is that really representative [of] what skills they have?”
The process of coming to a district-wide decision about standards-based grading has been present in the district for a number of years.
“It’s been a long conversation, so it’s not like last summer we just came up with this idea to do a conversion from the traditional grading system,” Butler said.
Still, some teachers have expressed dissatisfaction with the abruptness of the final decision and the lack of conversation that followed.
“We haven’t been able to talk it out much as a faculty, and I’ve really regretted that,” Spanish teacher Louis Mangione said. “I have raised my frustrations, … but we haven’t really had a … heart-to-heart discussion about it, especially airing the frustrations of any of the teachers looking at this change.”
Pushback from staff against the mandated shift to standards-based grading has also been accompanied by significant support from teachers in support of the switch.
“I think students know exactly where they stand as far as their skill level,” Butler said. “They have a say in their own education … If you want to get better at a skill, the teacher helps you identify the skills where you’re deficient and then you can work on that. But you also get credit for where you’re strong and you get feedback on that.”
Teachers have noticed students using this information to better address their academic shortcomings.
“I used to have students come and [say], ‘I need to reassess on unit one,’” math teacher Christine Browning said. “Now students come and say, ‘I need to learn how to factor,’ which is a completely different thing.”
Teachers also praise the system for allowing students to show growth while not suffering from previous scores that, when averaged, would lower an overall grade. Rather, standards-based looks at the overall trend of scores without averaging.
Such a system was created with the intent of emphasizing learning and growth, though not all teachers see it that way.
“I think that some of the points with standards-based grading are valid, but I feel like we could make those changes — the good part of those changes — in the normal, traditional grade book,” teacher Per Lars Blomgren said. “A lot of people who push the SBG make it seem like the previous system was just terrible, [but] it’s [only] terrible if the teacher does a terrible job with grading, in my opinion.”
Teachers have also expressed concerns over the clarity of where grades stand. Some worry that students will have difficulty knowing their grades if everything is based on tests.
“If it’s all based on the summative assessment, then you don’t know until you’re there,” Mangione said.
Mangione also spoke to the possibility that the shift to standards-based grading could simply be another trend in education and, like No Child Left Behind, could be ineffective.
“20 years later, we know that [No Child Left Behind] was ineffective and actually hurt students, and it’s starting to go away and people are starting to fight against standardized tests as a measure of a student’s understanding,” Mangione said. “[Standards-based grading is] an attempt by educators to try to see [if] can we create more equity; whether it’ll stick around, whether it works, just remains to be seen.”
Another common worry for students and teachers is the possibility of a negative trend line. A student could begin at a level four but drop to a three at the end of the semester, leaving many curious as to whether their final grade would reflect their initial success or recent underperformance.
In addition to this trendline, students have expressed concerns that, while focused on learning and growth, the standards-based system actually works against accelerated learners in terms of grades.
“I think standards-based grading is good at bringing up kids who typically score lower in the class, and kind of bringing down the kids that score higher in the class,” senior Aislin Pinckney said.
For many students, this difficulty is found most acutely in the work necessary to earn an A from a standards-based scale.
“To get a 4, for an A, the questions are usually stuff that go beyond what we’ve already learned, and I don’t think that should be the requirement to get a straight A,” senior Marley Kott said. “With normal grading, you can get some things wrong and still understand the majority of the subject, and do well.”
Students also find that standards-based grading tends to disincentivize studying.
“I know for my own abilities, I need to be pressured to do well once and perform once [for a test] instead of putting it off for a later date,” Kott said.
As the district prepares to implement standards-based grading for next year, a key point of disagreement persists: how should the learning process be interpreted. For proponents of standards-based grading, the system arguably supports learning as a whole, through celebrating the mastery of skills demonstrated on various tests.
Those opposed to the mandatory switch maintain that students should not only be graded on an end product.
“I am a true believer that the process is just as important as the product,” Mangione said. “It can’t be all about the product. Students have got to recognize all the way along their own successes.”
Despite concerns from some students and staff, supporters of the shift to standards-based grading believe that the system is navigable for all.
“Students should work with their individual teachers on what that expectation is from that teacher, and open up a line of communication with that teacher around that, and try to have an agreement that parents understand,” McSheehy said.