ST. LOUIS – The proud parents who attended Lincoln Elementary’s honor roll assemblies years ago assumed the school was a shining example of academic achievement.
Kids by the dozens lined up to be celebrated for earning grades that put them on the honor roll.
Then the school in St. Charles got state test results.
Most of the students failed, casting doubt on the school’s success and challenging the validity of many of its students’ glowing report cards. Administrators knew they had a problem.
What they did next upended everything parents, teachers and students thought they knew about grading.
St. Charles joined a national movement that – sometimes amid a formidable backlash – is rebuilding how a child’s performance in a class or course is calculated.
It’s a switch that seeks to move away from rewarding students merely for completing work, and instead bases grades on mastery of a subject.
Swept away are points for finished homework assignments, or good behavior and class participation. Instead, grades are more heavily based on exam results and the quality of work.
“There are kids that are good at playing the game of school,” said Julie Williams, principal of Lincoln Elementary, which began to overhaul grading along with other St. Charles elementary schools in 2008. “If you don’t ever do well on tests, but you raise your hand every time, those kids can score well in the traditional system. But when they are tested on a state tests, it exposes the weaknesses.”
St. Louis-area school districts such as Rockwood, Parkway and Pattonville also have tried new ways of looking at grades. Each district varies in its use and how widespread the concept is, but the ideas have all evolved from what’s called standards-based grading. And some of those details have sparked opposition.
Under standards-based grading, students face no penalty – pointwise – for failing to turn in homework. Instead, homework is viewed as simply a tool to help them master a subject.
There are no zeros. Moreover, students can redo assignments multiple times and even retake tests.
The changes – which run counter to how school has functioned for generations – have triggered fears from parents who worry their kids would simply slack off.
Some Rockwood teachers say the concept isn’t working in the schools that have adopted it.
Just this month, a Lafayette High School teacher took her criticism public. And when new grading policies were explained to middle school parents this year, jaws dropped.
“It was 45 minutes of gnashing of teeth,” said Paul Bozdech, a parent at Rockwood’s LaSalle Springs Middle School. “The general mood of the room was, ‘This isn’t how I had it growing up.’ ”
New approaches to traditional grading have picked up steam in the last 15 years, an era of accountability on teachers and schools that has more recently focused on individual student growth in learning.
Schools also have a new set of standards to measure that growth by. In the last few years, nearly all states also have adopted the Common Core, an outline of what a child should know and be able to do in each grade.
At the heart of standards-based grading is the thought that students should be awarded grades for demonstrating they have mastered a subject – not for the work they completed along the way.
Advocates of the idea say traditional grading can mask academic failure. For example, a student might score no better than a D when tested in math. But because traditional grading awards points for handing in math homework, that student may earn a C or better in the class.
“The learning is what it’s important, it’s not just the ‘check off’ of getting the grade in the grade book,” said Karen Hargadine, executive director of pre-K and elementary education for the Rockwood School District, which has been phasing in the standards-based model.
Under the new grading approach, the focus on mastering a subject is so important that students are given new latitudes.
For example, if they bomb on a test, they can retake at least that portion of it. The same thing goes for other assignments, which, depending on the school, could be resubmitted for a better grade.
And it’s on those points that some parents such as Bozdech disagree with what they view as a lack of real penalties or immediate consequences.
“That’s not real life,” he said.