Solon reps: It’s the knowledge
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · January 12, 2013

What pupils know by the end of the quarter is more important than what they knew at the beginning, Solon school representatives told West Branch about standard-based grading.

Which is why Solon Community School District made the switch from traditional letter grades, High School Principal Nate Wear told the board at its December meeting.

“That shows the problem with letter grades,” he said.

Wear and two other Solon school representatives met with the West Branch School Board, which is in the process of implementing standards-based grading at its middle school and plans to use it at the high school, too.

Some Solon teachers started using SBG in 2009; the school officially adopted it this year, staring it at the high school with plans to use it for younger pupils.

Wear said they use a four-point scale, and anyone making a “4” meets the standard.

They allow retesting, he said, and anyone getting the equivalent of an “F” is required to do the assignment or test again.

“It’s not OK to say they have a failing grade,” he said.

Grades are “up slightly” since implementing the system,” Wear said.

Using percentages to determine letter grades was inconsistent, he said, with some teachers using 90 percent for an “A,” and others using 94 percent.

“We made a consistent percentage scale,” he said.

Homework does not count for points, Wear said, because the school district considers it “practice.”

“We didn’t want to reward or penalize students for practice,” he said. “If they want to take the test, though, they must show they did the homework.”

Wear said the Solon school board provided “great” support for the change.

Solon School Board President Dr. Dave Asprey said the impact has been “dramatic.”

“There are people who have not embraced it whole-heartedly,” he said. “Some have left the school district.”

Asprey, who has been on the school board for seven years, said his first child entered the high school about that time and younger children are attending now.

“It wasn’t widely embraced until last year,” he said. “We embraced the notion, and a majority of teachers at the high school jumped on board, though it is definitely more work for the educational staff.”

Asprey said standards-based grading has “changed the relationships with the teachers” and now the district has the opportunity to reassess how well it is working.

There was “considerable variability” in the first quarter as to how much the teachers implemented SBG, which “created a real challenge for students and parents.”

“We needed to get a standard format,” he said. “We don’t have all the answers. We’re feeling our way through.”

The school board president sees it as a “cultural change” for parents who grew up with letter grades.

“To change that at the high school level -- those grades are for keeps,” he said.

Asprey said Wear worked with colleges on how to translate SBG grades for the university, and said the principal was praised by college recruiters for investigating the new grading system.

Wear said the school district created a School Improvement Advisory Commission to explain SBG to Solon residents, and hosted seven “parent nights” -- one before implementation, which drew a half dozen people, and six after, which drew about 120 people.

“This isn’t about getting kids INTO college,” he said. “This is about getting them THROUGH college.”

West Branch Superintendent Kevin Hatfield said that is important, because Kirkwood Community College sent a report saying about one third of West Branch students needed “immediate remediation” when they arrived on campus.

Wear said parents were most concerned with how to interpret the grades.

Lauren Connon, a Solon High School social studies teacher, said that grade point averages “haven’t changed.”

West Branch School Board President Mike Owen said he wanted to know how to keep retesting from turning into extra credit, and how teachers decide when to retest.

Cannon said that, in English classes, students learn skills repeatedly throughout the quarter, so there is less need for retesting than, say, math. Social studies, which she teaches, offers more retesting. Sometimes that might become an out-of-class homework assignment.

“I would like students to meet with me to see if we need to do some learning to reassess,” she said.

Wear said the school “struggled” to keep retesting from becoming a “freebie.” They considered set days to retest, which cut off a week before the end of the quarter.

West Branch School Board member Kathy Knoop said WBMS is not giving grades and her middle school child thinks there is “no motivation.”

“I think it’s OK to assign a grade,” she said, so the pupils are more prepared for high school.

Wear said the high school students in Solon are “buying into it.”

“They are turned on to knowledge,” he said. “Grades complicate the system. I would hold off. ... The kids who benefit the most are kids who struggle, not the ‘A’ students.”

WBMS Principal Sara Oswald said some parents are pressing for letter grades, asking “Why isn’t (my child) getting an ‘A’?”

“It was all about that letter,” she said.

Wear said the high school report card transcripts “still have a letter grade.”

He said there is “little flexibility” in letter grades since they are based on an overall average.

“With standard-based grading, grades can change weekly,” he said. “It doesn’t matter until you have a certified grade. It can be stressful on parents: ‘Why are they changing so much?’”

Hatfield said one question he is getting from the community is whether fewer hard deadlines prepare pupils for the “real world.”

Wear said it “shouldn’t be” the real world.

“It’s high school,” he said. “We’re trying to prepare kids for the real world.”

Cannon interjected that she does not want students turning in homework “sloppily done at the last second.”

“It should be much more meaningful,” she said. “In college, you are held accountable for your knowledge.”

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