JOPLIN, Mo. —
Report cards for students at some Joplin schools will no longer spell out the A’s, B’s and C’s — or for that matter the D’s and F’s — of student achievement.
Instead, the new system — a pilot project called standards-based grading — does away with letter grades and the traditional point-based system on which those letter grades are based.
Students at Kelsey Norman are now being given an M for Master, an AM for Approaching Mastery, a D for Developing or an NM for Not Mastered.
While students in kindergarten through second grade throughout the district have previously used this model, according to district officials, last year it was implemented at Kelsey Norman and McKinley elementary schools for all elementary grades, with each school giving both traditional letter grades and the new standards-based rating. This year at those schools, just the new rating system is being used for all grades.
Also this year, some teachers at East Middle School have begun using the new method, including for all seventh-grade classes. Students at East Middle School in communication arts, for example, receive ratings including Exceeding, Met, Emerging, Not Met and No Evidence.
Report cards for fifth-graders at Kelsey Norman now rate students in 21 areas in math, including the ability to multiply multiple-digit whole numbers; the ability to add, subtract, multiply and divide decimals to hundredths using different methods; and the ability to and solve “real-world” and mathematical problems involving volume.
In language and writing, students are rated in nearly two dozen areas, including the use of conjunctions, verb tense, commas and other punctuation, as well as the ability to produce and publish writing using digital tools.
The students are then given anywhere from an M to an NM in each category, or an NA if the material is not applicable.
While Kelsey Norman uses the M through NM system, each Joplin school using standards-based grading has different terms for levels of achievement.
Last year, for comparison, Kelsey Norman students got a point-based letter grade and a plus or minus symbol to indicate their competency in nine subject areas in mathematics, and 10 areas in writing/language arts.
While the traditional point-based letter grade system has been around for generations, standards-based grading also has been around for years, but has not been fully tested in Joplin, said Terri Hart, coordinator of curriculum for the Joplin School District.
‘Why not try?’
Asked why Joplin was experimenting with the transition, Hart said standards-based grading has advantages over the traditional method of assessing student performance.
“Best practices in instruction and research shows that standards-based grading engages students more in learning, it’s more ... reliable and precise and valid. Why not try? Why not see how we can engage kids more in their learning?” Hart asked.
She said the new system provides “more of a detailed, itemized report rather than a grade all clumped together,” such as a C in math that doesn’t break down areas where the student is strong and weak.
Hart said traditional grading is more subjective than standards-based grading, with the expectations of what merits a grade of A varying from teacher to teacher.
She also believes the traditional point-based letter-grade can undermine student performance.
“In theory, the whole letter grade is more detrimental to student learning, and that’s what we want to move away from,” Hart said.
Under the new grading system, there also are no points lost if a student did not complete work on time, nor are students penalized for missing work, which Hart said will still give students who have missed work a chance to improve.
“If I miss an assignment and get a zero, that’s detrimental to my overall grade,” Hart said. “What do I have to work toward if I already have a zero and a big fat F?”
Not turning in assignments is a behavior, not a reflection of learning, Hart said, and in order for grades to be accurate, they shouldn’t reflect whether work is being turned in.
“When you get a bad evaluation, the brain shuts down, which shuts down learning,” Hart said. “Some students may need to have small wins and successes before they can start dreaming bigger.”
But students who don’t do or turn in work won’t get off without a penalty, said Joplin Assistant Superintendent Angie Besendorfer. They will be rated on that, but in a category separate from their rating on the mastery of the material.
“We’re going to grade that separately, too, just in a special category,” Besendorfer said. “Instead of getting an F for not turning in work, it’s not that those aren’t evaluated, it’s just that they don’t impact the picture a parent gets on whether they learned or didn’t learn ... they will definitely be held accountable for not turning in their work.”
Additionally, the new grading system would allow for struggling students to have more time to work on specific skills while students who have advanced knowledge can move forward, Besendorfer said.
“The old way on a spelling test, if you got 10 out of 15 words correct, the next week you would never worry about the five they missed,” Besendorfer said. “If they get 10 out of 15 now, we’re saying, ‘This is important stuff we want you to learn,’ and give them multiple opportunities to demonstrate they have indeed accomplished this skill.”
Not real world?
Jennifer Steele is a mother of two students who attend Kelsey Norman who said she hates the new standards-based grading system. Steele and her husband are so unhappy, in fact, that they are considering moving to a new house in town so their kids can go to a different school that is not using standards-based grading. She said they even considered changing to Carl Junction schools.
Steele said she doesn’t think the new grading system prepares students for real-world challenges, including deadlines and the expectation that work will be done.
“When you’re out in the real world, your boss might want to do this by this date, and these kids are going to be like ‘What does that mean? What do I do?’ They’re not preparing them the right way.”
With the new system, she believes that students who are used to turning papers in on time will see others turn them in late and they will lose their drive because it won’t make a difference in the grade, she said.
With the new curriculum, she said her daughter no longer brings home spelling lists, and her children have homework assignments that are not worth points and are not counted toward a grade.
“I’m afraid they’re falling further behind. They’re not being pushed to their potential,” Steele said.
She said she wants to see more studies and research pointing to the benefits of the new grading system before the district continues to use it.
Now, Steele is working to organize parents who are unhappy with the new grading system.
“One person can’t change this, an army can change it. If we can’t get a group of parents in both elementary schools and East Middle School to get on the same page together, it’s not going to change. We can tackle this thing together. Right now I think the school board is only looking out for the school board’s best interests and trying to be with all their bigger city schools. They’re trying to push so much on these kids. They need to just let them be kids and let teachers teach.”
East Middle School PTO President Mackenzie Robinson said she has mixed feelings about the new standards-based grading system.
On the one hand, she thinks it would be good for parents to have more details about areas where their children need work. On the other hand, she thinks the district should be consistent with the grading system from school to school.
“How is it paying out when this kid has a 4.0 GPA and when this kid is Exceeding?” Robinson said.
Robinson’s other concern is that the grading system may be extended to the high school, where students’ grade-point averages are a key part of getting into college and earning scholarships.
Until the district is able to answer more parents’ questions about the system and its further implementation, she thinks most parents will have a hard time understanding the changes and why some educators think it’s time for different grading methods.
“They don’t have answers for those questions right now,” Robinson said. “It will take a while for parents.”
At this time, Randy Steele, Joplin Board of Education president (no relation to Jennifer Steele), said there are no plans to change the grading system at the high school level. Hart said there’s no predicting if or when the new grading system might be applied to the high school level.
“There are so many variables in what’s happening in education with Common Core and assessments,” Hart said, referring to standardized state testing that will replace the Missouri Assessment Program tests next year. “There’s going to be a lot of game changers and also in higher education, so it’s hard to predict over the next couple of years.”
However, at the high school this year, the district is implementing an Employability Report Card for students, in addition to the traditional point-based letter grades. It will rate a student on attendance, responsibility, whether he or she turned in assignments on time and other areas that would be useful for future employers, Besendorfer said.
Ashley Wright, a first-grade teacher at McKinley Elementary, said she enjoys the new grading system, even though it is harder and takes more time to complete than the old grade card since the teacher must evaluate each student’s progress on each skill in every subject.
“It makes them more accountable,” Wright said of the new standards-based grade cards. “The kids are much more proud of (their grades).”
Standards-based grading was discussed by the Joplin School Board at a meeting this spring, but it was after the pilot program had already been put into place. The board did not vote on it. During that meeting, when board members asked why it had not been brought to them prior to implementation, Besendorfer said that it must have slipped through the cracks after the May 22, 2011, tornado.
Hart said implementing the pilot program at the schools was a joint decision between school principals and district officials. She said she is unaware of any teachers at the schools involved who aren’t on board with the new system.
“We had so much on our plate after the tornado; if things didn’t get communicated directly to the board they may have gotten overlooked,” Hart said. “It’s not something the principals would have just done on their own without consulting.”
“It’s hard for parents and myself not to see the A, B, C, D letter grade,” said Randy Steele, board president. “We want to make sure kids are learning and we don’t just give a C or B. We want to show where they’re at, what they’ve met and haven’t met.”
Steele said the teachers and principals came to the administration about the new system and “took the ball and ran with it last year themselves.” He said that East Middle School Principal Bud Sexson has previous experience with the system from his work in Oklahoma.
AN INFORMATIONAL MEETING for East Middle School parents will be held at 6 p.m. Monday, Sept. 17, at East Middle School. Parents are encouraged to attend and ask questions about the new grading system.