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Clearing the air on grading shifts at SCSD

I’d like to take some time to explain why and how Solon plans to overhaul the way it assesses its students.
The Solon Community School District (SCSD) chose to look at its grading practices during the 2011-2012 school year. What we discovered was that teachers held wildly different policies for grading student work. We also discovered that some of our district’s college freshmen were reporting difficulty in retaining information for their first set of collegiate finals.
The board of education decided to ratify a set of grading guidelines that would standardize classroom assessment. This set of standardized practices has come to be known as “Standards-Based Grading.”
The hallmarks include:
Students’ grades are determined by how much they know and nothing else. Gone are the days of credit for organizing a three-ring binder or turning in Kleenex.
Homework is given and done in copious amounts, but it is not counted as a part of a student’s final mark. This allows homework to exist as the practice it was always intended to be. Many students experiment with a study strategy that includes no homework, and we would rather underline the errors of this strategy in a high school setting rather than in college.
Extra credit is no longer available. Students looking to raise their grades may only do so by becoming more proficient with the core content of the course.
Students are reassessed periodically and their grades are updated (up or down) based on more recent information. This is not what is traditionally thought of as a retake.
Assignments in our grade books will be indexed by idea rather than assessment item. For example “Motivations for the Civil War” vs. “Civ. War Quiz 2.”
These guidelines imply some very drastic changes to the culture of our schools, which we as a staff hope to communicate much better than we have been. Please allow me to address a few questions that were raised by the community during the past week.

College admissions:
Many parents have expressed concern that Standards-Based Grading will lower their students’ GPAs. At a time when grade inflation is a serious problem, this may appear to put our students at a disadvantage. This is untrue. As a faculty member at the University of Iowa, I can tell you that admissions is well aware of GPA inflation, and weights this factor accordingly low. Research shows GPA slipping in importance in the admissions process nationally, similarly to how class rank has all but disappeared.
Solon will be mailing an addendum with each student’s transcript explaining to colleges our system and how to adjust for the grade inflation seen in other districts.
However, the perception that grades in our school overall are lower is false. A current look at the high school data shows an insignificant increase in failing marks since the increased use of standards-based grading. What we do see is an increase in what our students can do and know.

Sports Eligibility:
A few parents have also expressed concern that a large number of students are or will be made ineligible for athletics. To date, no students have been deemed ineligible due to their grades, and we are not worried about a significant increase from last year. The issue of athletics eligibility raises a larger question that I’d like to address separately–

Running grades:
Running grades are letter grades that are viewable online 24 hours a day; they are an artifact of the Internet. Heralded as an easy way for parents to check up on students, they have now become ubiquitous and overused as a reporting device.
Philosophically, running grades do not make sense, especially within a standards-based system. If we’re willing to admit that it takes students weeks to come to mastery of a topic, then reporting a grade for their early behavior is inappropriate; the student’s understanding is still forming, and a grade of this early progress is similar to not letting someone finish a sentence before arguing with them.
This does not imply less communication, but it does imply that an early score of 5/10 does not represent the ‘F’ that PowerSchool erroneously reports. An early low score represents a place for the student to concentrate their efforts.
To date, the SCSD has not created a policy on when it is appropriate to report a letter grade, but be assured that this kind of reductionism will be pushed later into the semester.

“Retakes:”
When a student receives a low mark, it is now considered to be a message to parents, students and teachers that this student needs to revisit this material. This means that a student needs to be reassessed in the future in order to receive credit for their remediation of learning.
I think we can all agree that this is a fantastic way to learn, but we need to make sure that this does not come across as a system where students simply retake the same quiz over and over until they get it correct. This is not learning.
In my physics courses, students are assessed over the same 20 physics ideas at least three times each. Each time I am in control of when and I how marks are assigned, and the problems and situations are never clones of one another.

In conclusion:
We want our grades to communicate the process of learning. This will absolutely look like our students do worse at the beginning of semesters than you’re currently used to. We can no longer pigeonhole students as A students or B students.
If a student begins a course with an A-level understanding already, then that course is inappropriately simple for them. Students will begin with poor understandings, and they will get better because that’s what school is: a place to learn things worth grappling with.
Finally, I want you to know how important Solon is to me. Our students are arguably the academically finest in the state, our consistently high performance in athletics is nothing short of amazing, and the family values we extol in our students create fantastic citizens.
When my daughter and son are ready to go to school, I will proudly open enroll them into the SCSD.
Shawn Cornally is a science and math teacher at Solon High School, a lecturing professor at the University of Iowa, and an education consultant for the Cedar Rapids Gazette and KCRG. If you have any questions or concerns, please contact him at: scornally@solon.k12.ia.us