EDMORE — Grading for Learning, a new grading policy using standards-based grading, was implemented at Montabella Community Schools this year.
According to Junior/Senior High Principal Shane Riley, many schools across the state and country are looking at standards-based grading to better prepare students for state and national tests and, ultimately, their futures.
Grading for Learning has three areas of learning: practice, formative assessment and summative assessment. Each teacher determines appropriate assignment classification, including which ones will be graded.
Practice assignments, done in the classroom or as homework, give students opportunity to work with concepts, topics and skills that were introduced in class. They are not included in the overall grade, but help increase performance.
Formative assessments are part of the learning process. These quizzes, conferencing, discussions, games, learning logs, individual white boards and practice presentations are not part of the grade, but are designed to give feedback on student understanding.
Cumulative assessments — quizzes, tests papers, projects, speeches, presentations, demonstrations and portfolios — are graded.
A plan with a purpose
All schools in Michigan are required to develop a School Improvement Plan (SIP). Montabella’s SIP for the 2010-2011 school year included looking at grading procedures.
The school began by contracting an educational consultant with The Center for Excellence at Central Michigan University to study grading procedures in grades K-12. The consultant gave teachers access to current research and studies regarding grading policies that encourage student learning.
After teachers in the junior/senior high and elementary individually analyzed thoughts and practices, the entire staff met to discuss grading issues and potential changes. Using staff input, the administration incorporated some of these new ideas into Montabella’s SIP, including the new grading policy.
Although Montabella’s SIP was developed prior to Gov. Rick Snyder’s performance-based plan to reward schools for academic growth, effectiveness of this new grading policy increases chances of receiving a reward from the newly-created section of the Michigan School Aid Act.
“The school’s underlying goal to improve student understanding of the curriculum should parlay itself into higher scores on tests such as the MEAP, MME, ACT, Explore and PLAN,” Riley said. “We understand that the state government will attempt to craft different policies that could impact us in a number of ways. Regardless of the state’s policies, our goals will always include the improvement of student performance.”
Snyder’s proposal for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 restores about a third of the $1 billion cuts made last year. His plan may be viable; however, budget deficits cause schools to struggle to make improvements without adequate funding for books, materials and staff. Schools have been forced to make difficult decisions because of this statewide budget crunch, according to Riley.
“Teachers, parents and students have been frustrated by the implications of these decisions, but the bottom line is that we are charged with an extremely important duty: preparing students to compete for the professions of the future,” Riley said. “Regardless of the funding decisions that come out of Lansing, we have to find ways to complete this important task. This requires schools to become creative in ways curriculum is delivered.”
What’s in a grade
Junior/Senior High teacher Ryan Roberts was closely involved in the yearlong study at Montabella. He noted a discrepancy between what students know and the grades they receive. This was evident in standardized testing results.
“Students are not going to be able to slip by because they are good at ‘doing school,’” Roberts said.
Roberts explained the responsibility schools have to make adequate yearly progress (AYP), according to the No Child Left Behind Act. To determine AYP, the state uses MEAP and MME scores along with other indicators, such as the number of students who participate in the assessments and graduation rate for high schools.
“Our thoughts are that when we change our grading policy, it would make it more likely that our students would pass their classes and, in turn, improve the graduation rate,” Roberts said. “Eventually, I can see this as an opportunity for students to direct their own learning while a teacher facilitates their growth. We value the fact that a grade is an indication of what a student truly knows about the subject and to what degree they are competent with the information. I think the new grading policy is the right move to improve student understanding.”
Working out the bugs
Riley realizes there will be different issues that will be worked out in the first year of the grading policy. Some variance from classroom to classroom could exist because of the type of subject matter or the teacher. To help avoid this, teachers are asked to pass out a syllabus each semester to describe course expectations. Teachers will further define the types of assessments students may have in a classroom.
“What should not vary is the idea of what constitutes the meaning of a grade,” Riley said. “In the past, what an A, B, C, etc. means may have varied from classroom to classroom, and this is something that has impacted schools throughout the state and the country. As the focus of the grade is refined to include just the curriculum objectives, this variance should be reduced greatly.”
Students are charged with understanding what pieces of the curriculum they have mastered and what still needs to be learned. They will no longer “sneak by” with minimal understanding of important concepts, Riley said. Students will continue to practice and reassess if they are not scoring at a proficient level, allowing them to buy into the importance of learning the material and developing a willingness to reassess when they have not.
At the Montcalm Area Intermediate School District level, Michelle Goodwin, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, is spearheading the Hair on Fire initiative, which pushes the idea of standards-based grading. According to Riley, this is part of a bigger picture as expectations for teaching and student learning increase through the Common Core, a state initiative providing standards relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills needed for future success in college and careers.
“It is a new thing for all of us, and most people are only familiar with general ideas and rumors at this point,” Riley said. “We may be moving forward on this a little quicker than some of the schools in our area, but it will be a discussion a number of schools will have in the coming years.
“It is a new approach for both teachers and students so there will be some bumps along the way, but anything that puts the focus on student learning at a high level is good for students, and I believe this policy will focus our efforts with students and improve their performance,” he said.