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Common Core even affects letter grades

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By Joy Pullmann | The Heartland Institute

National curriculum requirements are influencing schools across the country in myriad ways, big and small.

One not-so-obvious change is that Common Core standards can influence how teachers grade student work.

Common Core's effects are long-reaching -- including confusing teachers and alienating parents.

Common Core’s effects are long-reaching — including confusing teachers and alienating parents.

Teachers have used standards-based grading almost as long as U.S. schools have been required to conform to centrally determined standards — about 20 years.

But the practice, in which teachers give students not the familiar A-F letter grades or 0-100 percentile grades — but numbers or letters like 1 through 4 or S, M, P — has ticked upwards since 46 states adopted national standards in 2010, said Ken O’Connor, a Canadian consultant who has worked with hundreds of schools across North America.

The nationwide shift to Common Core has meant more interest in standards-based grading in middle and high schools and in states requiring similar approaches, he said. Many also relate the practice to “proficiency-based grading.”

This year in Oregon, and by 2016 in Maine, new laws require teachers to assess students according to state standards, which is the idea behind standards-based grading.

“There definitely is, as far as I can see, momentum gathering,” O’Connor said.

Source: Standards-based education

No Child Left Behind’s requirement since 2001 that states test students according to set standards led to a rising interest in standards-based grading, said Tammy Heflebower, vice president of the Marzano Research Laboratory, a nationally-known organization promoting standards-based instruction.

“I’ve seen (standards-based grading) be on a natural trajectory over the last seven, eight, maybe 10 years,” she said. “But now Common Core is going to help focus us because we have a common metric by which to measure kids … I would anticipate a resurgence of interest because we’re going to look at competency over point-grabbing, so to speak.”

As schools adopt standards-based grading, whether to tie instruction more closely to Common Core or for other benefits proponents claim, some parents and teachers are not impressed. They say the grading scale is confusing and grants too much authority to those outside classrooms.

Objective or subjective?

In standards-based grading, teachers rate students on specific skills, and often give several different ratings per assignment if it measures several skills. In Florida’s Clay County, for example, teachers label student work “mastery,” “progressing,” or “insufficient progress.” Report cards look different, too — they’re typically longer and more detailed.

“In a pure standards-based system you would have only two levels: proficient and not proficient,” O’Connor said. “The symbolic representations — A-F, percentages — they’re artificial constructs that very often are only identified in symbolic terms. A is 90 to 100, B is 80 to 89. That doesn’t mean anything because … if it’s an easy test on an easy skill, a high score may mean a low level of performance.”

He said a central goal of standards-based grading is to relate grades and teacher comments directly to the learning outcomes states demand, making grades more objective, based on outside criteria rather than teacher judgment.

“When I went to school 25 years ago, teachers decided what they taught, how they taught it and how to grade it,” Heflebower said. “The standards movement has helped make more consistent what we teach (from) teacher to teacher, school to school, across a state.”

Some teachers like the idea, and some don’t.

When Tracie Happel’s school district in southwestern Wisconsin began phasing in Common Core, it also decided teachers would use standards-based grading. The second-grade teacher joined the committee that designed the new system. New quarterly report cards were initially eight pages long, but the committee pared that down to one double-sided page. Now K-8 students are graded M for mastery, P for progression and L for learning.

“Kids were more excited when I told them they got an A-plus, or a B. They know that’s pretty good,” Happel said. “But when you give them a P or M they don’t know what that means.”

While her committee was excited about the change — “We’re so in the 20th century!” Happel mocked — the rest of the teachers in her grade level were not.

“They said, ‘Why are we doing this? How am I going to grade that? How do I know what an M is?’” Happel said. “Some just said ‘I’m converting them to percentages’ … I think people grade based on feeling and keeping score.”

It was different for Patricia Scriffiny, a 20-year Colorado high school math teacher. Before she switched to standards-based grading nine years ago, “I had some students, they tended to be mostly girls, who would work very hard, do every scrap of extra credit, and fail miserably on tests. ”

“They really weren’t learning, but they were being compliant,” Scriffiny said. “Students who were more likely to be boys would fall apart on student-management issues like staying organized and turning in homework. They would just sort of disappear, get Ds or Fs, and quit engaging because they were learning the math but their grade never reflected their learning.”

She said shifting her methods is the only thing that has kept her a teacher. Now, rather than traditional percentile grades, she crafts and grades assignments according to specific learning objectives from Common Core standards and Advanced Placement curriculum.

Teacher autonomy, input key
One of Scriffiny’s colleagues, however, feels exactly the opposite.

“She’s like, ‘If I was mandated to do that I would retire,’” Scriffiny says. “If teachers are told, ‘You’re going to do this’ and they don’t understand why, that tends not to work very well.”

Jenny Larson’s Minnesota school district recently moved into standards-based grading along with Common Core. The high school English teacher complained publicly in school board meetings about three aspects:

  • The district attempted to tell teachers they could not assign a zero for work students didn’t turn in. Teachers could only grade what work students did turn in. So many students stopped turning in work. The district also said teachers couldn’t penalize students for late work, so a third of Larson’s AP class turned in everything right at the end of the semester, leaving her with hundreds of pages to grade in just a few days.
  • The district told teachers to stop including behavior in student grades. “My colleagues in [physical] ed had a big problem with that,” she said. “It should be part of the standard because sportsmanship is one of the rules for professional sports.”
  • The district decided that the work students did in class throughout the year could only be worth 20 percent of the final grade. So, Larson says, many of her students decided such work didn’t matter much, “not realizing there’s a payoff for that” because regular practice improves performance on big items like tests and papers, she noted.

After the first year and many complaints, the district changed its grading policies for the first two items, allowing teachers to give students a “drop-dead date” for assignments and a failing grade for assignments they didn’t turn in.

Practically, also, the new system is more complex and time-consuming.

“When I’m scoring a 60-question literary terms test, I have to translate that into a number: four, three, two, one, zero. I write down the number they get — 57, 44 — and then translate that into four, three, two, one,” she said. “And I also want them to know how close they came, so I have to enter both of those in my gradebook … If we have six different things we’re measuring in a paper, I have to enter each separately or figure out how to average them, so it’s taking twice as long. And I’m more prone to error, too, especially with a ten-point quiz. Ten would be [graded] a four, but sometimes I don’t enter four so I have to double-check.”

Two years into the practice, after lots of rethinking and explaining to students and parents, Larson says she generally likes standards-based grading. Her district, like many, translates their 0-4 scale into A-F grades and the standard grade point averages for high school transcripts.

“We don’t have extra credit,” she said. “Students would say, ‘In junior high I was getting a C or D and doing all these extra credit things to get a B,’ and here they actually have to work. I also like to give them assignments related to a standard. It removes the idea from students that they are getting busy work—it makes it very purposeful.”

What about the parents?

A main reason Happel dislikes standards-based grading is its propensity to alienate parents from their kids’ education.

“It’s too detailed and parents don’t know what it means,” she said. “And parents say ‘How come my child doesn’t get an M (for mastered)?’ So then you have to bring out evidence of how the child is doing. And in the state of Wisconsin everyone passes. We’ve been told you can’t give an M unless you can absolutely prove it, so no one ever gets an M.”

Parents often require lots of explanation if teachers and schools switch to the system, Scriffiny said.

“I’ve had every reaction on the spectrum you can imagine,” Scriffiny says, “but I’ve had parents come in and say ‘This makes more sense to me because this is how I’m evaluated at work.’ The ones who fight it the most are the parents of honors kids. They’re the ones who are good at playing school, aren’t they? They’re very good at jumping through hoops.”

James Wilson is a parent and teacher near Puget Sound. He also has overseen curriculum for the Georgia department of education and been a principal of several schools. His daughter’s school district uses standards-based grading, and he has been required to use it as a teacher.

“As parents, we hate it,” he said. “It tells us nothing other than our schools have implemented another screwball idea.”

Depending on the district, often most of a child’s grade under standards-based grading will come from large assignments like tests, with the remaining 10 to 20 percent coming from daily work, he said.

“The kids understand and they work it, and they say, “Hey, why should I do this, it doesn’t count for anything,’” he said. “So as a result they don’t do the practice that they really need to do to perform well on the assessments when it does count.”

Districts also typically convert standards-based grades into A-F grades or a 4.0-based system for a transcript, since colleges are used to those grading scales, which to Wilson makes the entire enterprise seem a waste of time. He says he’s seen no evidence the approach improves student learning, and it seems more of a fad that administrators pass around at conferences.

‘Infinite part of what we do’

Wilson’s larger problem with standards-based grading is philosophical: “We’ve moved away from content knowledge to wanting process.”

“You’re taking standard C, whatever standard C is, and you’re focusing on that to give a kid a rating … it cuts out providing kids with the greater liberal arts education,” he said. “You focus on such a minute part of something that is so much larger … and you realize the kid can do this and it looks like the kid is doing well but they really can’t do anything with the larger subject area.”

Because she decided to use this kind of grading on her own, Scriffiny said she’s had many conversations with colleagues about what it means to evaluate student work. Teachers’ beliefs about human nature and how to mold young people’s character influence their grading, she said.

Some of her colleagues believe kids should be penalized for late or poor work, because the real world often won’t give them second chances. Scriffiny said kids need to learn the power of forgiveness, and their ability to change labels others have given.

“I feel like a priest,” she said. “People I’ve just met tell me these horrible experiences they’ve had with math teachers. How you value people, it’s an infinite part of what we do. It’s visceral…. Sometimes the powers that be forget that. They think it’s just an instructional strategy, no big deal, we can just change it.”

Joy Pullman is a research fellow of The Heartland Institute and managing editor of School Reform News. Contact her at jpullmann@heartland.org.

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Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute and managing editor of The Federalist, a web magazine on politics, policy, and culture. She is also a former managing editor of School Reform News. In that capacity, Pullmann interviewed and produced podcasts with many of the leading figures in school reform. Before that, she was the assistant editor for American Magazine at the American Enterprise Institute.