California district implements skills-based grading in middle grades

Knightsen students stress over grading based solely on test results

By Jennifer Shaw For the Times

11/10/2015

A Knightsen school district committee has agreed to implement a grading formula that puts a stronger emphasis on test performance.

A few of the district’s classes adopted that approach last spring, after some teachers attended a conference led by nationally board-certified educator Rick Wormeli, who advocated that students’grades be based solely on assessments rather than merely on scores for homework assignments and general class participation.

This past quarter, all the district’s fourth- through eighth-graders were graded based on this model.

Leanne Sarmento, a seventh-grade teacher who attended the conference, said she and others liked the idea of the new focus being on skills. In the past, when educators looked at the students’ benchmark scores they didn’t necessarily reflect their grades, which might have been higher as they were also based on homework and classwork.

“Our focus is just to get students to honestly look at where their skills are,” Sarmento said. “When you compare (grades) with their benchmarks, they might not be meeting standards, but were getting good grades.”

After getting feedback concerning testing equality across grade levels and from parents upset by the perceived added pressure for their children to perform, the district this term is using a 90/10 split, allowing sixth- through eighth-grade students to have 10 percent of their grade based on other factors.

Parent Sandra Strobel said she is feeling more like a project manager these days, trying to ascertain how to best support her eighth-grader Rachel, who struggles with retaining the subject material for test taking.

“My daughter has been coming home crying and upset. It breaks my heart,” Strobel said.

Rachel, 14, once a regular on the school’s honor roll, has seen her grade-point average fall, which Strobel attributes to less emphasis being placed on homework and in-class participation under the new grading model.

“The way (the new grading system) was rolled out was not good,” she added. “This is not the time in their life for this to degrade their self-esteem.”

Rachel estimates she spends up to three hours a night on homework, and still tests poorly.

“The other day, I got a bad score on the test … and then I cried at lunch. I stress every week waiting for my progress report. I play sports and want to be eligible for the whole season and support my team,” she says.

According to Principal Ray Witte, the new grading procedure allows students to retake a test by submitting a form to their teacher two days after getting the results back. They must identify what they need to study and why they want to try again and they must complete all their homework before retaking tests. Teachers have discretion as to the number of times a student can retake a test.

Still, eighth-grader Makayla Winters questions the rationale for the switch.

“It is unfair to most kids. Kids who normally make honor roll are now struggling and … feeling like failures,” she said. “Are they setting us up to fail?”

Her mother, Tisha Winters, also questions the committee’s de-emphasis on students being encouraged and rewarded for doing well on homework.

“I feel all the changes have released the children of accountability and responsibility, which is strongly enforced in my children’s lives,” she said.

And, while the original intent was to implement a 100 percent emphasis on students’ performance on tests, projects, research papers, labs and collaborative group work, the committee opted for a 80/20 percent ratio — factoring in homework — for students in fourth through sixth grade.

Witte acknowledges that the rapid switch to test-based grading might have been premature for a school of 476 students, unaccustomed to such sudden change.

“We’re taking a step back from this jump we’ve done,” said Witte, citing an awareness now that the children are “not mature enough to have the ability to connect the dots,” correlating the importance of still working hard on homework and doing well on the various assessments.

“We need to challenge and push them at a level that’s appropriate for their age,” he said. “This is customizable for each student … We’re just trying to refine things so students can succeed.”

The committee — comprising a teacher at each grade level, a science teacher and a special-education teacher, with Witte as facilitator — also considered ways to alleviate cases of test anxiety, or to address the challenges faced by English language learners, for instance.

Sarmento, meanwhile, said she has heard a lot of positive feedback from parents who understand and want their students to meet the educational benchmarks.

“For me, the most powerful thing I have seen in terms of students’ attitudes is the kids are more cognizant now of their strengths and weaknesses, and for them, it’s not about the grade, it’s about developing their skills.”

For now, the revised grading procedures also will be applied at Old River Elementary, the district’s second school, slated to open at the beginning of the 2016-17 academic year.

In the meantime, the district will continue to evaluate the testing program.

“Nothing is written in stone,” Witte said.

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