Parents ‘lost’ over new grades
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · November 16, 2012

West Branch Community Schools may bring back letter grades — though probably not this year — after parents last week said they feel “a little bit lost” with the new system.
However, school officials implied that parents will likely still get a breakdown of the standards showing whether pupils are “Beginning,” “Developing,” “Secure” or “Exceeding” in their understanding.

Also, educators shared strong convictions about a new “no-zero” grading practice — where pupils are allowed to turn in homework late, or do it again until they bring their score up to a minimum level.

School officials offered the changes, though nothing was promised, in reaction to questions at a community forum Nov. 5 at West Branch High School that attracted nearly 60 parents and teachers.

The forum primarily tried to explain the schools’ reasoning behind the change in the grading system and how it works right now, but educators admitted that explaining the system simply still needs work.

Curriculum Director Sara Oswald said that some of the education standards are difficult, and that many pupils may start the school year with a “Beginning” (B) or “Developing” (D) mark, but as the year progresses, that should raise to a “Secure” (S) or even an “Exceeds” (E).

“Don’t see ‘Developing’ with gloom,” she said. “‘S’ is the goal. Are they making growth?”

Parent Amy Colbert asked how parents would know which standards are taught throughout the entire year, and which standards are only taught in one particular unit.

Oswald said the teachers are still working on clarifying that, but gave an example that often reading standards are continually practiced, while math skills need to be learned faster. And if a pupil falls behind in math, then the teacher would need to help them catch up.

Parents also said they were unclear on how many chances a pupil would get to bring their grade up. Superintendent Kevin Hatfield said the no-zero practice is not motivated by “unlimited do-overs,” nor “They just don’t want to give a kid an ‘F’.”

“Standards-based grading is about what students know,” he said.

He said the old grading practice turned into a bartering system — pupils would ask what it takes to get a passing grade, and sometimes the result is that they skipped learning the hard lessons and instead piled up on extra-credit work and perfect attendance.

Hatfield said colleges rely less on letter grades and more on course difficulty, so standards-based grading helps equalize the values from school to school.

Middle school teacher Brad McCloskey said the emphasis on standards is catching on with the pupils to the point that they are asking “What standard is this testing?” — largely to call on teachers to defend assignments as more than “busy work.”

In a video called “Toxic Grading Practices,” speaker Douglas Reeves argues that children are not “linear” and that they cannot all learn all subjects at the same pace to develop their full potential. By not letting them “take a zero,” they are forced to do the work and do it right, he said.

School board member Deb Schreiber opened the meeting, saying she saw a big difference in two of her own children, saying that one of them would finish his homework, but then did not see the importance of actually turning it in.

“My idea around education is that grades should reflect what I know he can do,” she said. “Not whether he turned it in on time.”

In another video, “Learning to Change, Changing to Learn,” speakers talked about the “nearly now world” of Facebook and Twitter, where children with smartphones are always gathering information, yet all social networking and cell phone use is forbidden from the classroom. The video suggested that it is more important to teach children how to find information and use it correctly, whether individually or collaboratively.

“What will education be like in 15 to 20 years?” Hatfield asked. “It will not be who memorizes the most facts. We want them to learn and take accountability for what they learn.”

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