KENNEWICK -- Lorie Blehm had her concerns about standards-based grading when her son started sixth grade at Horse Heaven Hills Middle School in Kennewick.
She and her husband were alarmed by the new grading system and how different it was from traditional grade-point systems. And also because it didn't seem to penalize students for missed work, or factor in behavior, attendance or class participation, she said.
But, she said, they decided to give the new system the benefit of the doubt.
"Unfortunately, even after two years, I still struggle to understand what the report card is telling me," she said in an email.
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The Kennewick School Board is set to hear a grievance about the grading system used at three of the district's four middle schools at a closed-door hearing Wednesday before it discusses district policies, possibly including grading philosophies.
District officials didn't want to talk about the new grading system before the meeting.
"It's premature to discuss right now," said spokeswoman Lorraine Cooper.
District officials have said the system offers consistency for students and accurately tells students, parents and teachers what students know. But students, parents and teachers have criticized it, saying it takes away student accountability and motivation and makes it more difficult to understand an individual student's academic performance.
"It drove me nuts because of the impact it had on the students," said Robert Wirtzberger, an eighth-grade science teacher at Horse Heaven Hills. "They just weren't putting out the effort."
A to F vs. 0-4
A traditional grading system typically uses a 0-100 scale and letter grades from a top grade of A to a failing grade of F.
Standards-based grading uses a 0-4 scale, where a 4 is a student exceeding standards and a 0 is an incomplete.
The standards are based on state requirements, and a student is graded on every component for every subject.
Horse Heaven Hills, Highlands and Park middle schools use standards-based grading. The systems were adopted after teachers and administrators learned about them through professional seminars they attended.
School administrators at Highlands and Horse Heaven Hills said in a letter sent to parents in September that the goal of the system was to accurately communicate to students what they know, what they need to work on and how well they are meeting state education requirements.
Each school implemented the system differently. The bulk of students' final grades at Highlands are based on assessments, while classwork and homework make up 20 percent.
Highlands students also can earn a second opportunity on an assessment, if other classwork is completed and the assessment is retaken within a week of the original assessment, the goal being students demonstrating mastery of each standard.
Students can redo work at Horse Heaven Hills but student grades are most influenced by their most recent classwork, rather than from an average of their grades through a term, according to teachers and school documents.
"A student who struggles in a class at the beginning of a grading period and receives poor grades, but who keeps working and by the end of the grading period can clearly demonstrate competence in the subject, should receive a grade that reflects that competence," according to a questions-and-answers document on the grading system from the school.
System causing confusion
Parent Kim Hunting said she didn't mind standard-based grading when she first encountered it at Horse Heaven Hills.
Her now eighth-grade daughter first experienced it when she started sixth grade, where the 0-4 grade scale was used in math class, Hunting said. Homework wasn't graded but there were weekly quizzes to test mastery. And there were grade percentages, meaning a student who was almost perfect but not quite could get a 3.75 or similarly specific grade.
Two years later, her feelings have changed. Standards-based grading has been applied to all courses and grades no longer can be broken down to percentages. Students have the opportunity to redo poor work, multiple times if necessary.
"The problem is, when you get to high school, in real life, you can't do that," she said.
Blehm said she still struggles to understand the system and has had teachers give her different interpretations of it.
She said her son has enjoyed middle school and thinks he has performed well academically, but said she'll be glad to be done with the system when he moves on to high school.
"I just really hope that the transition back to traditional grading standards will not be too difficult for the students who have been subjected to (standards-based grading) and any bad habits that have developed are easily discarded," Blehm said in an email.
Students have rebelled against the system as well. More than 150 letters written by eighth-graders at Horse Heaven Hills were submitted to Kennewick School Board members in late May.
Nancy Smith, who teaches eighth-grade U.S. history and civics at Horse Heaven Hills, said her students approached her about writing the letters as part of a school project.
"It didn't matter to me whether they were for or against it. I just wanted them to have a voice," she said.
A few students, such as Jonathan Vega, wrote in favor of the grading system.
"The reason we should keep it would be for all students to get a chance to graduate and not drop out," he wrote in his letter. "Many students drop out because they will see that they try hard in class but they do not get a good grade."
The bulk of the letters, though, were against it and came in various forms. Jared Jensen wrote his in the style of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Allie Stites kept hers as a formal letter to the board.
"It doesn't show the student's true progress," Stites wrote of standards-based grading. "For example, a 3 is at grade level in the standards grading system. But in the traditional system, a 3 could either be a D or a B. So are we saying a D and a B are equal?"
District wants consistency
School board members didn't address standards-based grading when the students' letters were presented to them but had talked about grading practices earlier in May during a retreat.
Current district policy leaves much of the decisions about grading up to individual teachers but board members said they want a more consistent and transparent grading system across the district.
But deciding what type of system to use could be difficult. The current system allows for a lot of differences in grading, meaning a student can do well in one class and poorly in another because of their learning habits. But board members also voiced concerns about implementing something similar to standards-based grading, where students can redo work.
"You know there are people who take advantage of leniency," said board member Heather Kintzley during the meeting.
Wirtzberger said he and other teachers at Horse Heaven Hills initially liked standards-based grading when it was introduced about six years ago.
The system has a simplistic scale, and it was particularly good at helping low-achieving students pass courses because they weren't affected as much if they missed assignments during a term.
"That's what I was sold on," he said. "I'm not interested in failing students, but I'm interested in keeping them accountable."
But the system became more problematic.
At Horse Heaven Hills, the system was applied across the school for the 2011-12 school year. The new scores were broken down on student report cards, leading to grade cards that were several pages long but did not provide an overall perspective on a student's performance in a given subject.
For example, a typical sixth-grader with seven classes gets a six-page report card. There can be six to 11 different scores for each class.
The standards can range from general categories like being prepared to learn and following expectations to highly specific standards for each class.
One sixth-grade math standard is being able to determine the circumference and area of a circle. A standard in science is being able to describe the structure and function of a living organism. Each of those standards is a number grade on the report card.
There is no overall score given for a class.
Wirtzberger said that with students able to make up assignments and other classwork, they weren't putting forth effort in their studies, putting it all off until the last moment. He said he eventually stopped allowing students to redo work.
"The students shut down completely," he said.
Larry Roberts, librarian and teachers' union representative at Highlands, said standards-based grading has its proponents and opponents at his school. He said the new system allows students more time to master subjects and doesn't penalize them for not immediately understanding their courses.
But a lot of parents are unhappy with not understanding how their student is actually performing and it has created a lot of extra work for teachers, he said.
What it boils down is a change in grading philosophy, he said. The old grading system assessed students on their ability to do class work and study while the new system assesses knowledge of a topic.
"Who do you want to hire?" Roberts asked. "Someone who got an A because he worked hard or someone who got a 4 but you have no idea how he got it?"
Complaints from teachers at Horse Heaven Hills but also at Park and Highlands because of the extra work involved in standards-based grading led the Kennewick Education Association to file the grievance with the district over the grading system.
Superintendent Dave Bond already has ruled against the grievance, leading the teachers' union to appeal it to the school board in Wednesday morning's hearing.