by nathan oster
The traditional grading scale could soon be a thing of the past in Big Horn County School District No. 3, which is weighing a possible switch to a standards-based system.
Scott McBride, the district’s curriculum and grants coordinator, provided an overview of the pros and cons with members of the school board during an open house that preceded their November meeting.
McBride said change has been a constant since the first grade ever recorded was documented in 1785. At different times in the nation’s history, there have been 20-point scales, 9-point scales and of course, the more traditional 4-point scale in which an A is treated as a 4, a B as a 3, a C as a 2 and a D as a 1.
The problem with the traditional scale, McBride said, is that a grade assigned by the teacher of A, B, C, D or F isn’t necessarily an accurate reflection of a student’s mastery of the standards that they are expected to know.
Some notable people in education at the national level, including Robert Marzano, Tammy Heflebower and Rick Wormeli, have been strong proponents of the switch to a standards based grading system.
McBride quoted all three in his presentation, summarizing that the consensus of the three is that traditional grades are too imprecise and that the feedback students receive when they are evaluated against the standards is a more accurate and undiluted indicator of their mastery of the subject area.
McBride said that right now, “everything a student does or will do,” including their follow-through (or lack of) on homework assignments and their behavior while at school, is thrown into a single grade.
“That is where we lose specific information about a grade,” he said.
McBride said the goals of a switch to a standards based system would include providing a clear feedback so students and parents know where they stand, ensuring accurate evaluations, ensuring that what is being evaluated is focused on standards that are college/career ready, improving the quality, fairness and reliability of the grading system and providing a system to focus on growth.
From a big picture standpoint, McBride said he “wants to get rid of the word failing” and to replace it with “not yet” … as in, “We don’t want them saying they failed; we want them saying they haven’t got it yet, but they are getting there.
“We want them to have a growth mindset. A fixed mindset puts us in a position where we mentally will not grow. Similar to what Ford said: ‘If you think you can, you can. If you think you can’t, you are right.’ … ‘Not yet’ breeds confidence in students.”
To move forward with the standards based grading, the district would need to develop proficiency scales in all content areas. As an example, McBride said a 2 might be used to show that a student has the basics of a standard, a 3 might mean they meet the full standard, and a 3.5 or 4 might show they are advanced.
A teacher’s role would be to fully explain the proficiency standard, teach those skills, provide feedback and monitor progress.
McBride said the district’s curriculum committee would be tasked with converting the current grading scale to the standards based scale. The goal would be to align students in all grades, including the elementary, to the A, B, C, D and F grading system.
Karen Sylvester, a parent and longtime member of the school board, said that with no part of their class grade tied to it, teachers might have a difficult time getting their students to complete their homework.
“That’s the carrot they dangle in front of them now because it is part of their grade,” she said. “So when it gets taken out, I’m just wondering how teachers will handle it.”
McBride said, “We hope to get rid of any busywork that might be considered homework. And when it comes to homework, if kids aren’t doing it, they will not do well on their assessment. There’s a direct correlation between the two. We are trying to move around having a grade being a behavioral punishment.”
Richard Russell said that while understood where he was coming from, he worries that kids who aren’t required to do homework to be successful might find themselves at a disadvantage when they get to college and putting in extra time is no longer optional, but rather a must.
Eddie Johnson, chairman of the board and a longtime teacher in the district, said his philosophy was always, “If you’re going to give homework, it should be meaningful to what you’re teaching, and if you’re going to do that, it should reflect somewhere in the grade. Otherwise, why assign the homework?”
But if the homework being assigned is “something they already know,” McBride said it just amounts to “busywork.”
Sylvester maintained that she is “worried about the shock that’s going to come when students walk through the doors of college, because it’s not going to be like high school at all. My kids who have had to put in the time to do well (in high school) have done much better at college than one of ours who skated through, never did a lick of homework and was the valedictorian, but almost didn’t make it through the first year of college.”
Supt. Barry Bryant said the idea that homework assignments would vanish if the district switches to standards based grading is “totally not true.” It would, however, be given a diminished weight in determining grades.
Bryant said the Greybull district isn’t the only one contemplating the change. “The whole state is going to it,” he said. “The idea is, we want to be able to have kids show us what they know and grade them on what they know, and to try the pull out the non-indicators that they know a subject.”
Nancy Nelson raised several questions, including how teachers would treat students at the far ends of the spectrum — from those advanced students who show proficiency almost immediately to those at the bottom on IEPs who struggle.
Bryant said kids at the top would move into gifted and talented offerings.
McBride said interventions would continue to be used to help students grow.
McBride was asked how current staff feels about the potential change. He said those who try to take what they are currently doing and intertwine it with what’s being asked of them will suffer. “It’ll feel like twice as much work,” he said. ‘But if they switch over, it’ll be less work.”