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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 09/17/2009

More on Grades: A Case Study in Change

By Valerie Strauss

Yesterday’s discussion on grades sparked a discussion worth continuing. Let’s take a close look at a school that overhauled its grading policy. Principal Joel McKinney of Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis--an urban school with more than 3,000 students--explains the work he has led for years to reform grading.

Readers : What do you think of this approach?

From Principal McKinney:
Regarding grading and assessment practices, most of my work (until recently) has been at the middle school level. While there, we worked with the teaching staff to change the grading scale to the following:

90 -100 = A
80 - 89 = B
70 - 79 = C
Below 70 = F

We eliminated the D grade. We believe that students must meet proficiency of the standards in order to be successful at the next level. It is imperative that we provide the supports necessary to get every student to at least the "C" level.

Additionally, we improved our classroom assessment by eliminating the use of the following practices:

*Penalizing students’ multiple attempts at mastery (We are more interested in the learning than the time it takes for them to learn.)
*Incorporating non-academic factors into a student’s academic grade (behavior, attendance, effort). A grade should represent what a student knows and is able to do in regard to the content area.
*Grading on a "curve" - We compare students to the standard, not each other.
*Grading all "practice" assignments (An average of a student’s practice attempts is not an indicator of mastery.)

We trained teachers in providing specific, timely and accurate feedback to students regarding their learning targets.

Shortly after moving to the high school three years ago, we ran a 9-week-long "failure challenge" and asked teachers to develop classroom intervention strategies for reducing course failure among our struggling learners.

Through the challenge, we increased parent contacts, increased after-school tutoring, increased learning contracts, increased project-based learning, and increased other instructional strategies that have demonstrated success.

We calculated that we had saved over 1,000 failing grades. (A reminder that Ben Davis is a large urban high school. We serve over 3,000 students in grades 10, 11, and 12.)

Three times each semester, our teachers submit "safety net reports" that list the students who are currently failing or in danger of failing the class. In addition to the names, teachers identify the strategies that have been utilized, the strategies yet to be attempted, and documented parent contact.

In the last few semesters we have begun to report these by breaking them down into NCLB [No Child Left Behind] breakout groups such as Black, White, Hispanic, ENL, and Special Education.

Three years ago, 16- 20 percent of all student grades were failing grades. The last two years, we have finished the year with a 7% - 8% failure rate.

Our 2006 graduation rate was 65%. Our 2007 grew to 67% and our 2008 grew to 70%. Our final calculation of the 2009 graduating class looks as if it will come in at 72 - 73%.

Grading and assessment practices are critical and integral to instructional practices.

Student learning and achievement are our top priorities.

By Valerie Strauss  | September 17, 2009; 11:30 AM ET
Categories:  Grades  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: THE GROUP: Getting Kids to Sleep at Night So They Don’t Nod Off in Class
Next: The Same Story in D.C.


Looking at this from an admittedly callous teacher's perspective
- Now I have to come up with a new assesement every time somebody fails a test (after all, if I let anyone do the same test four times, eventually they'd figure out a way to cheat on it)
- Now in addition to all that extra planning and grading, I have to keep a dossier on each student, documenting strategies, as well as calling parents god knows how often.
- Now I can't grade homework or classwork or participation, so I have to find some magical way to get students to do work and pay attention when they know they won't get graded for it.

Either that school is full of teachers that work 5X harder than other teachers... or the graduation rate went up because students got to take the same tests two or three times (after consulting their friends about the right answers), or because they got away from tests and got into projects with subjective grades that are easily fudged to be a C.

The school's graduation rate means nothing, nor do the number of passing grades, the article doesn't mention any outside acheivements, for all we know, 50% of the graduates might not be able to read, but this counts as a success because "more students are graduating".

Posted by: someguy100 | September 17, 2009 1:33 PM | Report abuse

From another callous teacher: I admire the grading scale. The message is that "barely passing" is no longer an acceptable option; that a "C" standard is what is expected from students. And that's great. I've found that setting a high bar enourages most to meet it.

But I am with someguy100 above: How does this work, logistically? What's a classroom look like? When do kids make up failed assessments? After school? In class? Are we seeing self-pacing options? Self-teaching options (packet work which is work in name only)? More revision of papers?

It's probably actually all easier than Someguy and I make it sound, but as a teacher who's asked, often, to make what seem like extra efforts for students who don't make similar efforts, I'm having no trouble seeing the difficulties.

Posted by: ddaudelin | September 18, 2009 12:10 PM | Report abuse

From a non-callous teacher:
The above approach documented in the blog don't necessarily reflect teachers who are working 5x harder or cheating the system. They represent teachers who are working smarter.

By using short, frequent formative assessments, teachers can monitor learning and adjust instruction accordingly, i.e. to student needs -- instead of just slugging along -- resulting in student learning as demonstrated on summative assessments.

By identifying students before they fail, and intervening, instead of waiting for them to fail and then remediating, students' self-efficacy rises, increasing their motivation to do work without the threat of grades.

By contacting parents, the home-school connection is strenghtened and now, through teamwork, parents and teachers provide support and scaffolding for student learning.

These are just some of the methods used by teachers who work smarter, not harder, and who are focused on ensuring all students learn.

BTW, Smart teachers know that the way to motivate students is not through fear of grades, but building relationships with them, giving them appropriately challenging work, and holding them to high expecations. The rest will follow.

Posted by: the1jem | September 19, 2009 12:44 PM | Report abuse

I just have to wonder why "admittedly callous" teachers continue to teach past the point where it is rewarding for them or beneficial to the students they teach. The level of cynicism demonstrated by Someguy100's comments is unfortunately not new to me as a mother with 4 students in the FCPS system. I can't tell you how often we as parents are urged to "partner" with the schools in the education of our children, yet I have found many teachers share Someguy's reluctance to call parents "god knows how often," or to take extra time to create "dossiers" on students whom they assume are "cheating" anyway, or are unwiling to work or pay attention if they aren't being graded. Obviously, there are problem students in every class and no system is perfect, but it seems to me that once a teacher goes so far as to admit his jaded perspective on his career, it is past time for him to move on.
By the way, both of my high school students were told by different teachers during the FAIRGRADE debate that if the grading scale was changed, they would simply adjust a 92 (a B under the old scale, but an A under the new one) to an 88 (a B under the new scale).How's that for subjective grading?

Posted by: footballmom1 | September 23, 2009 1:14 PM | Report abuse

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