Monday, March 7, 2016

High School Grading Task Force

By Dr. Kim Ehrhardt,
Director of Curriculum, Instruction & Assessment

Joint Administrator/Teacher High School Grading Task Force to make Recommended Changes in District Grading Practices

Several years ago, both our high schools were evaluated by the AdvancED Accreditation organization (formerly known as North Central Evaluation) to validate the quality of the educational experiences at both Parker and Craig High Schools.  Both schools received a favorable overall rating; however, one of the areas the accreditation team cited our high schools for was inconsistent teacher grading practices.  On a related matter, the district also received communication from the University of Wisconsin System that over 34 percent of SDJ students (entering the university system) were required to take remedial courses based on poor performance on placement tests. Upon investigation, school administrators determined that while these students had positive GPAs, a lack of consistent grading practices, possible grade inflation and grade inequities were the likely factors responsible for the situation.  

In response, central office and building administrators created the high school grading task force (which included HS teachers and guidance counselors) to explore what “best practices” in secondary school grading are, and then compared those recommended practices with what is current grading reality for students at Craig and Parker.  This coming Wednesday, March 9, 2016, the Grading Task Force will share the results of their two-year study of “best grading practices” and provide SDJ staff with professional development for what they believe needs to change relative to teacher grading beliefs and practices.  

Prior to this official announcement and training, the local media has started to question parts of the Task Forces findings especially related to recommendations for changes in future grading practices. This was followed by a Saturday, March 5, 2016, front page article in The Gazette that effectively pre-empted the official roll-out of the proposed grading recommendations.   The event is unfortunate, since the district is well aware of parental reactions about learning “new information” outside of the normal channels of district communications.

The intent of this blog (and the subsequent posting to follow) is to help clear up some of the confusion that has been generated in the community specifically regarding grading. This first blog will address questionable practices associated with percentage grading and review the recommended changes that the task force is proposing.

Student grading is a complex and sometimes overlooked topic. Nationally, much ado has been made in recent years about the problem of zeros in grading.  School districts in Wisconsin like Sun Prairie, Waunakee and West Allis have responded by stipulating that the lowest grade teachers can assign students is 50 percent rather than a zero. Districts that enact such policies have no intention of giving students credit when no credit was deserved. A 50% is still a failing grade. They do so to eliminate the potentially devastating effects of a zero in a percentage grading system.  This is what is being proposed by the SDJ High School Grading Task Force after two years of thoughtful work and careful examination of best practices in secondary grading.  Interestingly, the zero in not part of the SDJ Board Policy on grading.

Grading Expert, Thomas Guskey states that from his experience in working in some high schools “to recover from a single zero percentage grade, a student must achieve a minimum of nine perfect papers. Attaining that level of performance would challenge the most talented students and may be impossible for most others, especially those who struggle in learning. A single zero can doom a student to failure, regardless of what dedicated effort or level of performance might follow.”

Certainly students need to know that there are consequences for what they do and do not do in school. Negligence should be penalized, but should the penalty be so severe that students have no chance of restitution or recovery regarding their grade?  This is exactly the situation that we face when we work with youth who struggle in school or students who encounter some difficulties during a grading period.   An important belief of the grading committee is that…

Grading should communicate information about student learning in school, not punish students in ways that make recovery from transgressions impossible.

Ironically, the true culprit in this matter is not minimum grades or the zero - it's the percentage grading system.  There is nothing sacred about percentages in grading; however, electronic grading programs developed by software companies (with a fondness for a 0-100 scale) have perpetuated this problem.  The same is true in the School District of Janesville.  For example, if a student skips a test or fails to turn in a major project, they will receive an F. Given the current construct of the electronic grade book, the teacher will need to post a score of 50 in order for the grade to show as an F on the report card.  An F is an F!  Talks continue with our software provider to better align the district grading policy consistent with how the software generates letter grades.

In a percentage grading system, to move from a B to an A generally requires an improvement of 10 percentage points, say from 80% to 90%. But, to move from a zero to a minimum passing grade requires six or seven times that improvement, requiring an increase of 60 to 70 percentage points.  This form of grading identifies 60 or more distinct levels of failure and only 40 levels of success. As educators, our focus should remain on identifying learning successes and with such an unbalanced scale, it can mask a student's true increase in content knowledge.

The solution to this dilemma is simply to do away with percentages in grading and use integers instead: 0-4. Many schools use integers already in calculating grade point averages (GPAs). Colleges and universities throughout the U.S., including the University of Wisconsin system, use the integer grading system as well. If finer gradations are needed, tenths, hundredths, or thousandths can be included. 

In an integer system, teachers can keep the zero and assign it to students when such a grade is deserved. Improving from a zero to a passing grade for those students means moving from zero to one, not from zero to 60 percent or 70 percent. It makes recovery possible. It also helps make grades more accurate reflections of what students have learned and accomplished in school.  The integer system already exists (in part) in our BOE policy for high school grading.  
Refinements of the existing policy will be made as part of the task force recommendations. To be clear, if a student elects to “do nothing” in class and fails to complete any of the assignments they will receive an “F” grade which generate no points toward their grade point average for that course.

Assigning fair and meaningful grades to students will continue to challenge educators at all levels. It requires thoughtful and informed professional judgment by teachers, along with an abiding concern for what best serves the interests of students and their families.  

Once again, we believe the purpose of grading should be to communicate information about student learning in school.

This coming Wednesday, March 9, 2016, the Grading Task Force from both our high schools will be providing in-depth professional development to both Parker and Craig Staff.  The intent of the PD is to present the findings of the grading pilot to all teachers and instruct them in the recommended shift in thinking and practice relative to grading as we begin the 2016-17 school year.  After gauging the reaction from the staff from this professional development, a final recommendation will then be presented to the SDJ Board of Education Personnel/Policy/Curriculum Committee on Monday, March 28, 2016. 

In summary, the purpose of this blog is to help create more clarity regarding the intentions of a shift in how grading occurs in our high schools.  We understand that this change may create the need for continuing education with parents and the public like it has for the professional staff.  Please watch for future installments of this blog. 

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