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Sugar House Journal

Are letter grades failing students? Parents give the grade to report cards

Nov 29, 2018 13h06 ● By Julie Slama

Granite School District Assistant Superintendent Linda Mariotti discusses the transition to proficiency-based report cards at Cottonwood High School. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | julie@mycityjournals

It may be a positive experience when little Gabriella or Alex brings home a report card from elementary school informing parents they’ve mastered or are progressing to meet a standard in the core curriculum — all without the traditional letter grade.  

But parents say that may not be the answer for high school students.

“So far, my kids have been spared the drama of the standard-based report cards,” Bingham High PTA vice president Jodee Packer said. “With my kids applying to colleges, random proficiencies compared to letter grades don’t make sense. Everyone knows that a 4.0 GPA means all As.”

Packer, who lives in Jordan School District, also points out to compete in high school athletics, GPAs are checked to allow students to compete, and to change it “complicates the system unnecessarily.”

“It’s a system we all know. How do we check grades if we’re all doing proficiency-based report cards?” she said.

Nationally, the trend is exploring standard-based report cards as educators say letter grade report cards diminish students’ interest in learning and result in them thinking about how well they’re doing rather than be engaged in what they’re doing, said education expert Alfie Kohn, author of “Punished by Rewards” and “Schooling Beyond Measure.”

“The research quite clearly shows that kids who are graded — and have been encouraged to try to improve their grades — tend to lose interest in the learning itself, avoid challenging tasks whenever possible (in order to maximize the chance of getting an A), and think less deeply than kids who aren’t graded,” Kohn told the National Education Association in 2015. “The problem isn’t with how we grade, nor is it limited to students who do especially well or poorly in school; it’s inherent to grading. That’s why the best teachers and schools replace grades (and grade-like reports) with narrative reports — qualitative accounts of student performance — or, better yet, conferences with students and parents.”

Locally, school districts are taking a closer look at transitioning to or have already made the change to standard-based report cards to complement their parent-teacher conferences.

Granite School District, Salt Lake City area’s largest district, began reviewing the standard-based grading more than eight years ago and has been making the transition, tweaking it along the way, said Assistant Superintendent Linda Mariotti.

Four years ago, 18 teachers tested the new system. Last spring, 400 Granite District teachers used proficiency-based grading. This fall, 1,200 of the 4,000 teachers in the district were on board, mostly in the elementaries, she said.

“Anytime something is new, it can be overwhelming because change is hard,” Mariotti said. “But proficiency-based grading empowers our students. It supports student learning and we want to do what’s right for our students.”

She, along with other educators, inform parents in town meetings about what the district calls proficiency-based grading (PBG), which she said is a synonym for standard-based grading.

“I may be one of the oldest in the room and grading hasn’t changed since I was in grade school, but we need to let you know how well your student is learning at that moment in time and we can do that with proficiency-based grading where a letter grade can’t do that,” Mariotti told parents recently at town meeting held at Cottonwood High.  “The PBG report card will show where students are struggling and how you can help them and with what. It allows teachers to evaluate the assessments and know where to reteach. It eliminates grade inflation and extra credit not based on course work. Our report cards now will have value where the traditional letter grade report cards haven’t been making the grade when it comes to measuring student progress and achievement.”

In traditional grading, Mariotti said letter grades report the number of points earned on assignments in a subject but it doesn’t reveal what the student has learned. Proficiency-based grading, she said, offers better feedback by evaluating how well the student has met measurable standards. 

Through the PBG or standards-based grading, students will receive a score based on assessments put into an algorithm. The latest assessment will carry the most weight as students are expected to know the subject better, she said. 

“This will ensure that we are being consistent and that the students will be learning the standards,” Mariotti said about the assessments that can be retaken during that school year. “With PBG, students are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate proficiency in multiple ways — they can write it, build it, dance it, say it, paint it, say it in another language — any way they can articulate they know it.”

That 1 to 4 score will be what is shown on report cards for elementary-grade children, but Granite secondary students will have that converted into letter grades as well.

“Nationwide, colleges are placing less emphasis on GPAs and more on ACT and the courses students are enrolled in, but we realize it is a bigger system out there so right now, we’re continuing to provide both the score and letter grade. USHAA (Utah High School Activities Association) also has student-athletes eligibility on GPA so that’s another reason to provide both. But we know letter grades can be subjective and may not really be reflective of what students are learning and PBG eliminates that,” she said.

However, the transition frustrates some parents. 

Sheri Wade’s children have some classes that are graded on a PBG system and some that are not — she thinks.

“My daughter’s math class is straightforward,” she said about the eighth-grade honors class at Bennion Junior High. “If the student gets a 1, then we know the student needs improvement and in what area. If there’s a 4, then we know the student has exceeded the expectations.”

What confuses Wade is a science class.

“I’ve been told that if a student receives 40 percent on a quiz, that it can’t be retaken and that assignments and labs are part of the grade where I’ve been told that with PBG it’s not graded so it’s hard to understand what is going on,” she said after the parent meeting at Cottonwood High.

Earlier, Mariotti said homework is not scored.

“Homework is independent practice. Teachers demonstrate and talk about a skill, then they do it together with students and then ask students to do it on their own either in class or at home. Teachers provide students feedback, but not in terms of grades or scores, but rather to see them do well and improve,” she said. “There also is no extra credit. The scores are based on proficiency assessments. It’s a new mindset that we’re needing to shift.”

Cottonwood School Community council member and parent Robyn Ivins then questions the motivation for homework.

“I really like the proficiency-based grading and I’m grateful for them trying to make a difference, but it’s confusing to students and parents with how assessments really work and if homework and extra credit are really not part of the grade,” she said. “I feel like all the teachers who have switched to PBG are on the same program, but they aren’t.”

For example, Ivins said her daughter, who she thought was in a PBG math class, just had her homework graded and was told that the teacher informed her that homework needed to be completed if any student wanted to retake tests that term.

Even the change of mindset may prove difficult, Ivins said.

“If teachers tell them they’re not grading homework, the majority of high school students won’t do it. It’s hard for them to be motivated to do it just for the sake of learning. It’s hard for students to suddenly be told they don’t have to get a certain grade. It goes against everything they’ve been told from first grade that they need to have certain grades so they can be ready for college and receive scholarships,” she said.

Ivins also expressed concerns with the new grading system for refugee students and those with disabilities.

Mariotti gave this example: if a parent has a sixth-grader and she is reading on a third-grade level, the teacher is still to teach the sixth-grade standards.  

“The IEP (the student’s individualized learning plan) will be able to show and help her with different ways she may be able to demonstrate her learning and trying to meet the proficiencies, which she may or may not get to, but she may get to a concept or objective level,” she said. “The same is true with an English learner, where a state test helps identify her understanding level and from there, she can demonstrate the learning.” 

Many parents wanted a concrete date the district will completely transition to PBG.

Mariotti said there isn’t “a drop-dead date,” but encourages teachers to shift when they’re comfortable.

“Already this is rolling over on its own, just snowballing. I know it’s frustrating to parents we don’t have a specific date, but we want teachers to embrace it, not resist it,” she said. In two years, she expects most teachers and schools to be on board with PBG for Granite’s 67,900 students.

The transition also is occurring in nearby Jordan School District, which educates students in the southwest part of the Salt Lake Valley.

Jordan School District Administrator of Middle Schools Michael Anderson said he’s “excited to give more meaning to our grading system. It’s part of the trend to get to the heart of school and learning and education.”

While he said middle school and high school levels haven’t changed their letter grades, with PBG, they are able to provide an “accurate reflection of what students know and are able to do.”

“With standard-based grading, extra credit, effort or not getting work down isn’t the focus; it’s assessments,” he said. “We’re changing report cards from a grading game to a learning game.”

He said the assessments will reveal what standards students miss and will help teachers determine if the question was poor or if it’s an area that needs to be retaught. He said homework is used for students to practice what is taught to be ready to take the assessments.

“Kids can retake assessments, but only after homework is done, so they have a chance to learn the material,” he said.  “The 4-3-2-1 score with proficiencies will show if students know or can show proficiency and can demonstrate and apply it. This will give more meaning to the A to F letter grade on current report cards and allow the student to know why they may have a B in a class and know he or she needs to show proficiencies in certain standards to improve. Standard-based grading empowers the students to know where they are learning and what gaps they have.”

Anderson said that since letter grades are “universal” with colleges worldwide, Jordan has remained with letters, but “has put more meaning into those letters” at the high school level. Elementary students are on the numeral system.

“Our teachers and administrators have worked their guts out for better education and standards of learning for our kids,” he said. “Standard-based grading takes the guesswork out of report cards.”

Oquirrh Elementary PTA President Beth LeFevre appreciates that.

“The report cards are trying to explain it more and there’s no guessing that one assignment can bring down a grade,” she said. “It gives parents a better idea of what a child needs to work on, but I’d still like to see more explanation with the scores and see the percentage of where they’re at. If I don’t understand something, or want more detail, I don’t wait for the school to contact me. I just go to the teacher.”

Both Granite and Jordan districts have online report cards so students and parents can review students’ learning — as does Murray School District. 

Murray School District students receive the common letter grades.

“All Murray City School District schools use a traditional letter grade report card that measures completion,” said Scott Bushnell, Murray District assistant superintendent. “The MCSD report card is issued quarterly and gives a snapshot of a student’s academic, citizenship and attendance status at that time.”

However, Murray District educators have looked into the pros and cons of standard-based grading.

“We are focusing by grade levels and subject areas, across schools, working on agreement of standards and levels of proficiency. We are currently working within the traditional grading format and communicating with students and parents on how a student is performing. In English/language arts, math and science, we have begun to monitor the progress of students with respect to grade-level standards. This progress monitoring has been beneficial in helping students and parents understand standards mastery. This process began in elementary schools and is now being used in secondary schools as well,” he said.

Canyons School District made the transition to PBG with elementary schools in 2013–14 and tweaked it with parent and teacher input for the following school year.

“We feel parents have a better understanding of their child’s progress with our report card reflecting ‘mastered’ or ‘not yet mastered’ a standard rather than passing or failing,” Canyons Spokeswoman Kirsten Stewart said. “The idea is not to penalize the student, but to learn the material and retake the tests to demonstrate the mastery of the standard. One of the benefits of standards-based grading is it helps to convey that mistakes can be made and not getting 100 percent is part of the learning process.”

While the standard-based grading system is in place in elementary schools, Stewart said there is discussion about placing it in the secondary schools although “there is no established deadline.”

“It doesn’t have to be a score, but the letter grade can be based on those standards,” she said, adding teachers have more than 90 hours annually of instructional training to help assess student learning and achievement. “We feel standard-based grading is a nice balance to communicate to parents that their child is learning and learning skills that they will use through their lives.”