WA districts address common concern with standards-based grading

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldJuly 16, 2012 

David Radford said it was difficult for some students at his high school to adjust to standards-based grading this past school year.

Students at Kent-Meridian High School were graded on a 0 to 4 scale. Students had to meet listed standards, and homework and extra credit didn't factor into final grades.

And those departures from traditional grading led to complaints, said Radford, the school's assistant principal.

The Kent, Wash., school is dealing with the same concerns voiced by parents, students and teachers in the Kennewick School District, where a similar controversial system is in place at three of the district's four middle schools.

Educators in the Kent School District and Federal Way Public Schools said they pursued standards-based grading to better prepare students for the future and make sure all students were assessed fairly.

"Kids have said they really like knowing expectations," Radford said. "But they've also said it's harder for them to get an A."

Horse Heaven Hills, Highlands and Park middle schools in Kennewick use standards-based grading. Along with discarding the traditional 0 to 100 point scale and letter grades, the schools have worked to assess students strictly on academic achievement and not include behavior, such as classroom participation and turning in homework, in grades.

The systems were adopted after teachers and administrators learned about them through professional seminars and are based on the research of Ken O'Connor, who formerly taught in Canada and Australia, and works as an educational consultant. The Kennewick School Board is considering adding elements of standards-based grading to district policy.

Federal Way is implementing a standards-based education system in all its schools. Kennewick educators have visited the district to see how Federal Way administrators put their system in place.

During a November 2011 school board meeting, Marie Verhaar, Federal Way's executive director of teaching for learning, said educators said the new system made it easier to address student learning deficiencies, led to better conversations with parents and made sure necessary skills were covered.

"We believe it is our duty to provide (students) with grades that are true and reflective of their achievement," she told the Herald.

Several teachers spoke against the system during that meeting, upset with how much extra work it took to score and report grades on tests and other assessments.

"I have 100 students. I give one test with six learning standards. That's 600 grades," said Kay Walls, a teacher at Lakota Middle School, adding that scoring and entering that many grades was equal to more than 30 hours of work.

Kennewick teachers have voiced a similar complaint, saying the additional workload violated their contracts. School principals, Kennewick Superintendent Dave Bond and the Kennewick School Board have rejected a grievance on the issue.

And just as many students at Horse Heaven Hills wrote letters to the Kennewick School Board in opposition to standards-based grading as Federal Way students voiced frustrations with the system, saying they don't truly understand where they stand academically anymore.

"We've heard we've met learning targets but what does that mean other than you did a good job?" asked Justin Kon, a Federal Way High School sophomore, at the meeting.

Along with Kent-Meridian, all Kent elementary schools use the standards-based model.

Fourth-grade teacher Tracie Watson of Martin Sortun Elementary School, said changing the grading scale got the biggest reaction. Some parents had difficulty understanding their child's performance based on the new scale, particularly parents who wanted to see their formerly A-level students continue to get high grades.

"(A 3) is fabulous work but they want their child to get 4's," Watson said. "To some parents, it looked like their child wasn't working hard enough."

Radford said problems with the grading scale at Kent-Meridian were partially avoided by continuing to use letter grades in report cards, providing a GPA to use for scholarship and college admissions.

But the exclusion of classroom behavior from grades was a tough sell with teachers, he said. While the school is asking teachers to keep track of students' work ethics and classroom behavior, the district's grading software can't collect and report that data.

The Kent and Federal Way educators said they know there are flaws in their current systems. Verhaar said the current gradebook being used in Federal Way is difficult for teachers to use. She and Radford said they've struggled with finding a way to report on student behaviors as well as academics.

However, the educators have no intent of backing away from the change, saying it's necessary if students are going to learn the skills they need to know.

"The past grading practices were broken," Verhaar said.

It will take time for parents, students and teachers to adapt to something that is very different from what was used in the past, they said. And some are already seeing the benefits of the new system.

"There is a cultural shift that is taking place," Radford said.

-- Ty Beaver: 582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com

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