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Ditching letter grades for a 'window' into the classroom

Emanuella Grinberg | 4/8/2014, 9:04 a.m.
Krista Wolfram might be out running errands or in the pickup line at her daughter's school when the alert appears ...

— A new grading system in Virginia Beach, Virginia, elementary schools, marks students on a range from "advanced proficient" to "novice" in each subject's standards.

In Oregon, a new law says schools can use letters or numbers to assess students, but the grades must be based solely on academic performance. Those marks will no longer consider whether an assignment was turned in late or if a student talks in class.

Proponents of the new systems believe that traditional grading leads to inflated marks for students who behave well in class, even if they don't have a strong grasp of concepts -- and lower grades for those who understand ideas but arrive late or fail to turn in homework.

Flaws in traditional grading come from outdated and inconsistent notions about its purpose, said Ken O'Connor, an education consultant who advocates for standards-based grading.

"They give the community the wrong message of what school's all about, that it's about the accumulation of points, when we should be doing everything to make clear school is about learning," O'Connor said.

But what's popular for elementary-age students can be a tougher sell in middle and high school.

Parents and teachers become less willing to abandon letters and numbers as students prepare to apply for college, O'Connor said. But even within the same school, different teachers might determine grades in inconsistent ways, he said.

O'Connor argues that numbers and letters can serve a purpose -- as long as they're buttressed by ongoing communication of a student achievements.

"Report cards are a permanent record -- they're helpful to provide a summary of student achievement every year as part of a communication system, but it's not right to think they're the be-all-and-end-all," he said.

Some schools are compromising at the middle and high school levels by implementing standards-based learning that still incorporates letter and number grades.

At the Solon Community School District in Iowa, older students still receive letter grades, but parents hear more often from teachers and there's a fresh focus on priorities, said Matt Townsley, the district's director of instruction and technology.

Solon schools are in the second year of implementing standards-based learning for kindergarten through 12th grade. In the past, teacher comments might be jotted on the pages of a test or scribbled in the margins of a term paper. In the new system, detailed feedback is available digitally, and it's the focus of periodic parent-teacher discussions and student evaluations. Plus, it helps to use those tests and term papers as evidence to support student assessments.

"We felt eliminating letter grades would be too much at once," he said. "But we know homeschooled children who often don't get letter or number grades make it into college each year. We just need to do the research on our end and figure out how to make the college seamless transition for students and be able to assure parents."

No parent support? 'Dead in the water'

The schools serving Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows in British Columbia began developing a plan to eliminate letters and numbers from kindergarten through seventh grade in the 2010. Parental involvement was essential to taking the plan live district-wide in fall 2013, acting Assistant Superintendent David Vandergugten said.