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Standards-based grading a work in progress

SOLON– Standards-based grades have changed the way Solon teachers assess students. And while some are satisfied with the system, others aren’t waiting to see the report card.
An October district survey of 376 students showed the new grades were raising questions about years of homework and straightforward tests and quizzes.
Over a dozen pages of anonymous comments from students tell the story from a student perspective; fear of change. Many commenters asked for homework credit to be reinstated or worried about grade point average and transcripts for college and career.
In the new system, teachers are letting students use homework as a practice space, and then making notes about technique. The idea is to lead the student to solve problems on their own.
Along the way, in response to the student survey and a separate teacher survey, the school has made some updates to its system, including adding a 3.5 designation to its four-point scale.
The district retracted a transcript addendum that would have accompanied student grades and explained the new system.
Superintendent Sam Miller sent an email to parents on Oct. 23. That week, high school principal Nathan Wear met with students by grade in the high school media center to discuss the policy with students.
Solon teachers have also been working to communicate reassessment policies.
After parent complaints were aired at an Oct. 8 school board meeting, the district issued a consistent grading rubric.
As a new quarter began Oct. 26, first quarter grades were given a seven-day grace to allow students some extra time to take reassessments.
For veteran math teacher Patti Edwards, the biggest change has been creating new tests for each standard. She makes several versions of her assessments and is still working out some details in her system.
Edwards used to have a 10-point scale and still wasn’t sure about where her 10 points would meet with the new four-point standards-based grading (SBG) system, but wasn’t worried about the transition.
For her pre-calculus classes, she keeps a file in her classroom with all student work and assessments (quizzes, tests, and projects), so they can go back over items they missed and, eventually, get credit for them, or so students can target certain concepts not yet mastered and prepare for a reassessment.
The district has posted several web pages on the subject and, on Oct. 23, superintendent Sam Miller sent an email to parents addressing concerns raised during six informational meetings in September about the new grades. Grades five through 12 now have a four-point grading scale where a 4 is the top grade and demonstrates thorough understanding of course or grade-level standard. A 3.5 demonstrates understanding, a 3 demonstrates developing understanding, a 2 is partial understanding, and a 1 indicates minimal understanding of the standard or course subject.
Edwards wasn’t completely sure where student grades were going to fall but also said the new system hadn’t affected the students learning in any amount. She said Solon teachers are still giving top-notch instruction even with a time crunch for some teachers still developing their new grade books.
And the biggest difference for students?
Edwards thought students were now controlling their own destiny, by checking their skills, finding the areas they’ve fallen short and dealing with the problems.
Students can come into her classroom during seminar periods or after school to find the learning targets they’ve missed and practice for reassessment. Edwards offers notes on the tests, little pointers to keep students moving towards solving problems themselves.
She also lets students rework tests to make up half the points for each standard assessment.
The most recent score counts and many of her students in the first quarter were happy with their reworked tests (called journals, they are yellow sheets attached to the top of the original tests) and didn’t bother with a full reassessment.
If they’re still not happy with their grade, students can completely retake a test (Edwards makes several versions of each for each standard) and a check-in with teachers is required before it can be scheduled.
If the teachers have had time to adjust, how are students coping?
“It wouldn’t be harder if they did the practice,” Edwards said.
Edwards has also started putting demonstrations online so students who fall behind can watch while she solves different math problems.
In the new system, “(students) have the ability to control grades as well as the responsibility for them,” she said.
But they can’t flunk a test one day and go right back at it. Students are asked to show their practice work before she lets them redo an assessment.
Like Edwards, many Solon teachers, deciding that grading part of their classes with standards and the rest of their classes with a previous method was too much work, went all-in at the beginning of the year.
By parent-teacher conferences, Edwards was able to show parents where their kids were and where they could go, something she couldn’t do last year when there were no retakes.
That’s been the part her students single out as their favorite part of the new grades, being able to practice and then improve their grades by reassessing.
For Solon parent Karen Sherman, “(the schools) came out of the blocks really fast,” and at last month’s school board meeting, she asked the board to reconsider SBG.
“Homework should count,” she said, “in real life, it counts.”
Her son is one of at least two students who have open-enrolled out of Solon in the past few weeks but Sherman declined further comment for this article.
Solon parent Dave Weetman said “(the new grading system) requires a different approach for the student and teacher.”
Initially, he didn’t get it but said he’s now optimistic about the new grades after what he called a rough implementation at the start of the year.
“I educated myself on the grades and went to a meeting (at the school),” he said, adding that he now had more faith in the district’s response to parent and student concerns about the new grades.
For Edwards, the process is part of an ongoing career in education. She said she’s been seen enough new initiatives at the school to know changes take time and tries to remain flexible enough to adapt to new classroom methods as she becomes aware of them.
Solon director of curriculum Matt Townsley calls the new grading system a work-in-progress.
He’ll keep surveying students and teachers to adjust the district’s new standards-based grades policy and the district has accelerated its SBG training schedule, taking place during the year as part of teachers’ professional development.
Administrators are making rounds to “more quickly implement the grading guidelines consistently,” he said. “This takes places on an as-needed basis. It may be a meeting during a teacher’s prep period/block, before/after school or for a half day of learning and implementation time.”
Throughout the entire process Townsley has been updating a timeline of the schools’ transition to standards-based grading, which began when he tried it in his own math classes. Soon after, math/science teacher Shawn Cornally started using the system.
When Townsley became Solon’s curriculum director, he asked for standards-based grading to become the subject of a district-wide study. The school board approved standards-based grades for students at the middle and high schools in May 2012 for 2012-2013, requiring every fifth through 12th grade teacher to try it in one class before the mid-year year and in half of their classes by the end of the year.
More about Solon’s new grades can be found at the district website: www.solon.k12.ia.us/district/instruction/sbg/