Making the grade



Cutline: North Fayette Valley High School students (clockwise from front, left) Erin Kurdelmeyer, Lincoln Johansen, Alex Callahan, Sawyer Fink, and Leif Lujan are pictured studying for classes in the high school library. As part of the ongoing transition to standard-based grading throughout the school district, NFV staff has been asked to begin making summative (tests, projects) assessments more important than formative (homework, skill acquisition) assessments. (Mike Van Sickle photo)   






Making the grade 

By Mike Van Sickle
Union editor

You could be the parent of the child who proudly waves his or her first-quarter report card at you as if it were an American flag during a passing parade on the 4th of July, or you could be the parent of the child who sheepishly slides his or her report card under the stack of your monthly bills before slinking off to his or her bedroom.

When these two sets of parents open the quarterly report, they most likely have different responses. However, at the same time, do they totally understand what their child did to earn his or her final grades?

Under the current system at the North Fayette and Valley Elementary centers and North Fayette Valley Middle School/High School, it could mean that a student has mastered the key material taught by the teacher in that particular class. Likewise, it could mean that even though a student doesn’t test well, educational personnel could assume the child has learned all the material through completing all of his or her homework and paying attention in class. 

They could have also earned extra credit for doing additional homework or simply bringing in a box of Kleenex to the classroom teacher.  

NFV administrators today are asking parents, “When you send your son or daughter off to an institution of higher learning, which assessment would you rather have the A’s on his or her report card reflect?”

North Fayette and Valley shared Superintendent Duane Willhite noted Thursday that prior to the current whole-grade sharing agreement between the neighboring school districts, they had each independently studied “Toxic Grading Practices.”

“They are toxic because some of them are considered detrimental to learning and to measuring what was learned,” he explained.  “Some, like giving zeroes, actually gives the student permission not to complete the work or not try on a test. After all, once you get enough 0 percentage scores that even reaching the 60 percent for a D- is improbable, why even bother any more?  

“Or if you are unmotivated by grades and grading, you know where a D- is and you can just do enough work to get there,” he continued.  “We believe that if the homework reinforces the ultimate learning goal, then it needs to be done – no zeroes, no class credit until it’s done.  

“Kind of like paying taxes, if you forget to send them on time, do you not have to do them? What about extra credit?” the school administrator asked. “If you brought a box of Kleenex or got a permission slip in on time, did that help you read better? So why does it help you get a better grade?”

Willhite reported that when the joint North Fayette and Valley District Lead team gathered for two days this summer, it addressed the similarities and differences of grading expectations in each school district. As a result, a list of recommendations for grading procedures was established to eliminate toxic grading practices.

Noting that Solon recently hosted over 100 school districts on a standards-based system seminar, he later commented that as the state moves forward with the Iowa Core, school districts across Iowa are studying standard- and/or competency-based grading systems.   

While North Fayette and Valley are making the transition toward a standards-based grading system, Willhite acknowledges the “safety net” may be pulled out from under some students. Therefore, it has  been recommended to staff members to gradually implement the new grading so that students can get accustomed to the system.

With a full understanding that it could take not only the students, but also the teachers and parents, two to three years to become accustomed to the new grading system, no timeline has been dictated to staff to fully implement standards-based grading at the North Fayette or Valley education centers.

“The safety net I allude to is the custom of rewarding compliance and good behavior with a grade,” he said, while later asking, “If I’m a pilot and my teacher has to save my landings 80 percent of the time, but I get extra credit for real smooth take-offs and I turn in all my flight logs on time, I could still pass flight school with an A.  Anyone want to fly with me?

“Getting a 100 percent on your paperwork is a noble effort, but getting passengers back on the ground safely is the ultimate learning goal,” he commented. “In our new grading recommendations, to make grades really reflect the learning, we need to differentiate the real learning from the practice exercises.  Getting an A on your homework does not necessarily mean you can fly the plane.  So why should it weigh heavily in the final grade? The landing safely is the summative assessment that should be measured.”

Willhite admitted that it may take some students longer to learn a topic than others and  thus, the safety net in standards-based grading is the “retake” and “redo.”  

“Failures should not be permanent, but that’s not a free pass to a second chance,” he explained. “The recommendation (to teaching staff) is that before we allow a student to retake a test, we require them to continue studying, complete any unfinished homework and take another test, not the same one again.”

At the same time, North Fayette and Valley teachers have been asked to make the summative assessments more important than the formative.   

Willhite explained that summative assessments measure a student’s skills in the standards being taught, “the real learning.” Summative assessments are typically  tests, projects, or presentations in which teachers grade a student on the “mastery of a skill or content standard.”  

Meanwhile, formative assessments are the homework and class time spent by students in reviewing and practicing the concepts, plus skill acquisition.

“When a student can prove they have mastered the content standards of the class in some way, then they get a good summative grade,” he further explained.  “Preferably, 75 to 80 percent of the grade should be from summative assessments.  Leaving just 25 percent for the formative grading means there is little grade pressure to complete homework.

“With this new system, good kids who do their homework and comply with teacher rules but don’t take tests well may see a drop in their grade,” he admitted, while concluding. “If our goal is to make the grade more meaningful, that’s as it should be. When (students) retake tests or redo projects until they get them done well, then they will have earned the grade.  Then they are ready for the next level of learning. Since we are all lifelong learners, isn’t that the way it should be?

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series on the transition to standards-based grading at North Fayette Valley Middle/High schools, and North Fayette and Valley elementary schools.

Part II will feature the plans and views of local staff members participating in the ongoing transition.)


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