Standards-based grading isn’t measuring up
About 30 attended Osseo School Board work session to hear next steps
Connor Scheidler, a ninth-grader at Maple Grove Junior High, didn’t used to worry about his grades. He worked hard, received good grades and didn’t think much about it. This year that changed.
“I’ve never really ever been super worried about it, and now I am,” he said.
What has Connor worried is not hard work or rigorous courses. It’s the implementation of the district’s standards-based grading system. Now in year two of implementation, the district has put more benchmarks into effect, including a new way of grading, using a 0-4 scale.
Connor doesn’t think it’s working well. That’s why he attended an Osseo School Board work session on the topic Oct. 30, to make it known that he has concerns.
His twin sister, Lauren, shares his concerns. Even though the district only began using the grading scale at the beginning of this school year, she has noticed inconsistencies.
“I just felt that the grades that we got didn’t represent our work fairly,” she said. “… The way it was graded didn’t show what we knew. … We don’t have a problem with the rigor of the work — It’s just the way that they grade it is not fair.”
They are not alone in the district. Approximately 30 community members attended the school board’s Oct. 30 work session on the subject. Several parents also spoke up about problems at two regular school board meetings in October.
The point of standards-based grading was to begin assigning grades based on mastery of the material, not other factors. By doing that, the district also hoped to bring consistency to the grading process, so grades would mean the same thing across the system and wouldn’t vary much from teacher to teacher or school to school.
Some in the district feel it’s had the opposite effect so far.
“Both of my kids, as well as several other families, are starting to see both inconsistencies in the grading scale and lack of fairness in the grading scale,” said Julie Scheidler, Connor and Lauren’s mother.
The majority of complaints have not focused on the philosophy of standards-based grading but on its implementation and the perception that it makes it more difficult to get an A.
Many say the way teachers assign grades is highly inconsistent. Some teachers only use whole numbers on the 0-4 scale, while others use tenths or hundredths. Using only whole numbers can hurt a student’s overall grade — if work that falls short of a 4 drops directly to a 3, it makes it more difficult for students to earn an overall A in the class (an A- starts at 3.5, and an A starts at 3.67).
Some have complained that teachers have different understandings of what a 3 or a 4 means. And critics say the 0-4 scale is confusing and unnecessary. They point to other districts that have implemented standards-based grading using more traditional percentage-based scales.
Perhaps the most common concern was that the bumps in implementation affect students in junior high and high school at a time when their grades will affect their ability to get into the colleges they choose.
Some, including Connor, think the district should work out the kinks in the system by implementing it at the elementary level first and then carrying it over to the higher grades.
At the Oct. 30 work session members of district’s administration acknowledged some problems with implementation.
“We know that there are places where we’re meeting our goals,” Supt. Kate Maguire said. “… and we know … that we’ve got some real problems in areas of implementation.”
Maguire and other administrators have repeatedly said the system is not intended to make it more difficult to earn an A. Maguire has acknowledged that courses and standards are more rigorous than ever but said that is due to state standards, not a new grading system.
At the Oct. 30 work session, Don Pascoe, director of research, assessment and accountability, explained in detail how the 0-4 grading scale works and said teachers supported the system because it correlated with the GPA scale.
Administrators also said the district has been responsive to feedback and has already made some adjustments this year, even though it hasn’t yet made it through a whole trimester using the new system.
The district has been working to determine the extent of problems and to identify where problems are concentrated. According to Kris Rouleau, coordinator for curriculum, instruction and educational standards, the district has determined about 27 percent of teachers are using only whole numbers in their grade books. She said the district will take time to more fully explain the consequences of their choices. She noted that in its guidelines the district didn’t specifically ask teachers to use decimals. It only gave that as an option.
Administrators said the district is focused on problem solving and has an action plan to address issues.
Wendy Biallas-Odell, director of curriculum, instruction and educational standards, said administrators would be meeting with principals to develop an action plan for each site. She said the action plans would seek to accomplish five goals:
• Clearly communicate recent changes to practices.
• Develop a plan to get feedback from students and parents to be rolled out in December.
• Discuss the implications of grading practices, such as using whole numbers versus decimals.
• Review syllabi to make sure expectations are clear.
• Harness the expertise of leadership teams and teachers who have done well implementing the system at each building.
Biallas-Odell said the district was aware of the importance of speed. She said administrators would meet with high school principals Oct. 31 and junior high principals Nov. 5 to develop the site-specific action plans. She said the action plans should be implemented by the end of the year at the secondary level and shortly after that for elementary schools.
Biallas-Odell said she is “confident” that with the help of site leadership the district can intervene where needed.
The board agreed issues should be addressed as quickly as possible, but some felt the need for more drastic action than others.
Director Teresa Lunt felt strongly that the district should consider suspending all or parts of the implementation, specifically parts related to the 0-4 grading scale.
“I feel some of this is self-inflicted,” she said. The audience erupted in applause.
“I know it has affected students negatively,” Lunt said. “I cannot continue to support this current implementation the way it is without a real reassessment.”
Director Laura Cottington also wanted to consider delaying implementation at the high school level while the district works out the kinks at the elementary level.
“It’s just been feeling like we’re doing this as we go, and then the implications fall on our students,” Cottington said.
Directors Jim Burgett, Kim Green and Dean Henke all expressed concern about the situation but seemed to feel the district had come too far to stop. Instead, they felt problems must simply be addressed as quickly as possible.
“It is disturbing to have students feel the pressure and the stress,” Green said “That’s’ not what we want. So we need to correct this as quickly as we can.”
“As far as stopping this completely, we’ve come too far,” Burgett said. “We’ve done too much. We’ve got our staff committed, the majority of them … Whatever it takes, we’ve go to get this nailed down. … I think in the grand scheme of things, we’re narrowing down on a good system. It’s not perfect, certainly not implemented well, yet. It is hurting students — I hear that in my own house. But I agree with the goal in the end.”
Henke found it disappointing to hear about major inconsistencies when the goal was to create consistency. But he seemed to agree that the district should stay the course and try to fix the problems as quickly as possible.
Director Tammie Epley didn’t express an opinion, but she shared a story she heard from a teacher who told her not to turn back now. He told Epley teachers spent a lot of time learning the new system and it’s working better than anything so far. He said it would set a bad precedent if the district stops implementation. It would send the message that the time spent by teachers had been wasted and would make it more difficult to get teachers to support future initiatives.
The school board will hear updates at future meetings. For more information on standards-based grading in Osseo Area Schools, go to district279.org.