Could 4’s and 3’s replace A’s and B’s?

By Sara Gabriele
When Isabella Mauceri checks her grades online, she doesn’t see a list of assignments. Instead, she sees a list of standards, such as “analyze visual literature” or “communicate effectively”  with a number out of three behind it.

Mauceri is a student in Joeseph Frenna’s language arts course at Malcolm Price Laboratory School. Frenna, along with several other teachers at Price Lab, has recently revamped his course to use what is called standards-based grading.

In standards-based grading, material is broken down concept by concept and students are graded on their mastery of each standard. As opposed to “norm based grading,” the class isn’t graded on a curve, but rather, students move on based on their proficiency of individual standards.

For Frenna’s language arts course, this makes for a less traditional class. Instead of entering assignments into the grade book, individual standards, such as the aforementioned “communicate effectively,” appear along with the student’s demonstrated proficiency.

“I initially started doing this because of the Iowa Core Curriculum,” Frenna said. “[I decided to use] sort of a reverse method; I use the standards to develop an assignment, instead of making an assignment and seeing what concepts I’m hitting with it.”

Frenna said this allows him flexibility in his course because if a student doesn’t meet a standard with a particular assignment, he or she can come up with a different way to learn it. He named a particular instance where a student had given a research presentation and had done well on all the standards but one: “learning how to communicate effectively.” To meet this standard, Frenna allowed the student to create a short, fun presentation on Zombies in which the student’s entire focus was on this particular skill.

“It allows me to be flexible,” Frenna said. “It’s important for me to constantly remember it’s not the paper that I think is so important. It’s the skill. If my assignment isn’t getting the student that skill, I have to rework and make one that will.”

Students see benefits from the approach as well.

“It really reflects the work ethic of the students,” said Megan Grey, a junior at Price Lab.

In Grey’s Algebra 2 class, there are no longer chapter tests. Instead, students must demonstrate their mastery of the material, one concept at a time. Short assessments are given instead of blanket tests, and students have two opportunities in class to get the score they want on the assessment. After that, students may come in as many times as they like to take another assessment, but on their own time.

“[This method] ensures that you master the concepts,” Grey said. “Unlike in a blanket test, you actually get a chance to go over the information you may have missed and work through it until you understand it.”

Several schools around the state and country have begun to implement versions of this system. However, the method poses several obvious challenges for larger schools like Cedar Falls High School.

Although Price Lab uses a mixed approach method where students receive letter grades based on their cumulative performances, many schools using the standards-based approach do away with letter grades altogether. Students receive a series of numbers correlating to their mastery of the particular standard, usually on a 0-4 scale. Because this results in no GPA, it poses a dilemma for college-bound students.

“Colleges want to see letter grades,” Principal Dr. Rich Powers said. “Systematic change takes a long time, and, right now, everyone else is still using the old system.”

The system also creates logistical challenges for teachers, especially in math and science,  because it can lead to a constant reshuffling of students. Often, schools using this method do away with the traditional honors/middle/low divisions of classes. Instead, classes move concept by concept and students are regularly reshuffled based on their mastery of the material.

Although many teachers recognize that this method would provide a more individualized education for students, some question whether it would be worth it.

“Our current system would have to completely change for students to be able to progress,” science teacher Lynn Griffin said.

Other concerns include losing a traditional classroom environment, less personal teacher-student relationships, and difficulties with scholarship applications.

Despite the structural challenges, some, like Sandra Dop, a consultant for 21st Century Skills at the Iowa Department of Education, contend that standards-based grading is a move in the

right direction. Dop explained the standards-based grading is a part of a larger educational reform movement for what is called competency-based education.

This approach to education focuses on giving students credit for what they know or are able to do, not how long they spend in a class. “Under the current system, a student gets the same credit for Algebra 1 whether they receive an A or a D, and they both take the same amount of time to complete the course,” Dop said. “Our goal is to develop a system that accurately reflects what students do and don’t know or are able to do and allows them to do so at a more individualized pace.”

The push behind this more individualized approach to education is to ensure students receive an education that prepares them for the current work-force and economy.

“We’re not in factory mode anymore,” Dops said. “The type of education that worked for me in the sixties and seventies will not work for students today. Today, students have to be creative, critical thinkers, communicate in complex ways, and work in collaborative situations, all in a global context.”

Competency-based education and standards-based grading are not formulated systems, and this allows school districts the freedom to determine what works best for them.

Wendy Battino is the director of a national foundation called RISC (Re-Inventing Schools Coalition) and a longtime pioneer of this less traditional approach to education. At her school in Alaska, the students were the instigators in deciding how they wanted the system shaped. At this particular school, students not only receive grades for math, English, and reading, but for “career skills” and “personal skills.”

“We wanted to create something that was unique for each student,” Battino said.

Although Battino’s Alaska school is fairly small in size, she has begun the approach at a number of other schools in larger districts, such as in New York City and Los Angeles.

“We’ve learned to roll it out in waves,” Battino said. “Change is tough, whatever the size of the school.”

Even at Cedar Falls High School, administrators are looking into methods such as MAP testing, an adaptive assessment that provides more accurate measures of student growth, to move towards the standards-based approach.

While Powers doubted that Cedar Falls High School would ever reach full implementation of a standards-based system, he did note that “[MAP testing] is one way we’re trying to be more standards based.”

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