Minnesota schools give standards-based grading system a closer look
Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, March 28, 2013 – Some Minnesota educators are on a mission to take the guesswork out of grades.
A growing number of school districts in the state and across the nation are looking at overhauling how they size up student performance.
Traditional grades can be tricky to compare: Different teachers give varying weight to attitude and work habits such as regularly turning in homework. They might average out performance on assignments — or reward stronger work later.
Standards-based grading zeroes in on a student’s mastery of Minnesota’s academic standards. Work habits don’t factor into grades, though teachers might track them separately. Students often have extra chances to show they’ve gotten the hang of the material, and final grades don’t suffer if they stumbled early.
“It’s really a fundamentally different way of thinking about grading,” said Emily Puetz, chief academic officer in Minneapolis.
Her district is eyeing standards-based grading in elementary and middle schools in 2014. Anoka-Hennepin, the state’s largest district, is making the switch in elementary schools next fall. St. Paul will do the same at its middle schools in 2014.
Other districts — from Spring Lake Park to Bloomington — are exploring the method, too. Often, such districts run into some parental anxiety: Could the new approach undermine the importance of meeting deadlines, showing up on time and other key work habits?
In Osseo, some teachers and parents have protested a new system’s fast-paced rollout, saying it has bred more of the grading inconsistencies it set out to eliminate.
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In recent years, some Minnesota districts have examined students’ grades against performance on state proficiency tests — and found disconnect. Osseo discovered eighth-graders who got B’s in math scored all over the spectrum from “does not meet standards” to “exceeds standards” on the state math test.
School grading tends to favor students who “do school well,” as Osseo’s curriculum and instruction director, Wendy Biallas-Odell, put it: They show up on time, raise their hands, complete assignments and volunteer for extra credit. In some classrooms, students can make headway toward an A that way — without proving they have mastered the material.
“Some of the things that have gone into grading traditionally have nothing to do with learning,” said Steve Unowsky, the middle grades assistant superintendent in St. Paul, where Hazel Park Middle School and Murray Junior High have piloted standards-based grading.
To some educators, these traditional practices fly in the face of a national push to show students are hitting learning targets on their way to more advanced courses and college. They also make grades less-than-informative.
Geoff Maruyama, a University of Minnesota education professor, said colleges have long leaned heavily on high school grades to glean which students will do well on campus. But they are an imperfect tool, and stories abound of straight-A high school students stuck in remedial college courses.
Maruyama recently applied for a federal research grant in partnership with the Minneapolis, Bloomington and Rochester school districts. He hopes to help them fine-tune their grading so it’s better at predicting student readiness to tackle more challenging academic material.
Standards-based grading often uses a 1-to-4 scale, which corresponds to the four outcomes on state tests: does not meet, partially meets, meets or exceeds standards.
Across the country, as well, standards-based grading is gaining traction. Most districts remain reluctant to experiment with it in high school because of the key role GPAs play in college admissions.
“Standards-based grading is beginning to grow exponentially,” said Robert Marzano, a Colorado-based expert on the subject.
Marzano said some districts are doing it right. Those that fail to spell out what the new grades mean are taking “a step backward.”
Ramsey Middle School in Minneapolis opened this school year with a new staff and students. Educators pitched the idea of trying standards-based grading, Principal Paul Marietta said.
The numerical grades students get this year strictly reflect how well they have mastered the concepts they are expected to learn in their courses. Students can re-take tests and re-submit assignments. The most recent grade, not an average, holds sway. Grading against how the rest of the class does is out.
The change has not come without soul-searching among educators and parents. Marietta said the school is still working on creating more detailed and clear grade reports for parents.
“We’re running up against 100 years of history with traditional grades,” he said.
Marietta said he’s encouraged to see more students meeting with teachers before classes or on their lunch breaks to prep for do-overs. Because the new grading approach breaks down feedback to individual standards, it’s more informative.
“Traditionally, you take the test; the learning is done,” Marietta said. “We’re using the grades as a learning tool to communicate to students how they can do better.”
Osseo is midway through a three-year rollout of standards-based grading across all grades. Two years of research went into the shift.
But in a recent letter to the school board, teachers singled out grading changes, among other new initiatives, they say added stress, swelled workloads and hurt morale.
Jay Anderson, the local teachers union president, said educators have rallied around the idea of setting academic goals and grading students on their progress toward them. But they have grappled with how the district implemented the new system.
Parent Steve McCuskey, a vocal critic, said the district’s speedy shift to the new approach has created confusion: Should teachers stick to just whole numbers or use fractions in grading? What exactly does attaining a 4 (exceeding standards) take?
The new system has made it harder to get the equivalent of an A and easier to pass a course, McCuskey said.
“This hurts the overachievers and helps the underachievers,” McCuskey said.
McCuskey said his son’s GPA dipped in his senior year; the family believes it cost him a more generous scholarship at Winona State University, where he is a freshman.
Biallas-Odell, the district’s curriculum director, said Osseo is working to address concerns. The district plans to slow the rollout in its final year and offer more professional development.
“Our three-year plan was very ambitious, maybe too ambitious,” she said.
Experts urge districts interested in standards-based grading to take it slowly. Without planning and additional support, the shift can leave teachers overwhelmed.
In Minneapolis, the district is choosing an elementary and middle school to pilot the shift next fall. It has enlisted a school board committee and a parent advisory group to offer input.
“Where a lot of districts have fallen short is communication and engagement around the changes,” Puetz said.