Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this opinion article do not necessarily reflect the views of UTW or it's affiliates.
By Gabriel Costilla, West High
Can I be honest with you? I like Standards Referenced Grading. In fact, I’d prefer that we took the plunge to Standards Based Grading, but that’s an argument for another day.
I started on this long twisted road in the summer of 2018 with my colleague, Mary Harrison, because we were both frustrated with the fact that so many of our students were adept enough at navigating the school system that they could largely get by without, you know, actually learning. For so many of our students, it was never about learning, it was about points. For our low achieving students it was about getting to that magical passing threshold through a combination of participation points, half-done work sheets, and mediocre assessment attempts. On the other end, our high achieving students were just as points focused. They definitely made sure to turn things in on time, I’ll give them that, but when it came time to challenge them, to give them texts and questions that weren’t as easy to tackle, they saw it as a punishment. They saw what should have been an opportunity to make mistakes and grow as just another way for us to drive down their GPA and crush their dreams.
So Mary Harrison and I decided to dream about how things could be better. We talked, and we researched, and we debated and eventually landed on Standards Based Grading as a way to better serve our students. Knowing that SBG would be impossible in our current school system, we opted instead for SRG, as a compromise. In the midst of months of planning and banging our heads with trying to find an appropriate conversion scale (this was particularly difficult because in USD259 a 60% is considered passing, where as in most places that utilize SBG/SRG, a 70% is the passing threshold) we discovered that USD259 was looking at moving towards SRG.
We were shocked, but also delighted. We knew that our vision for our classrooms would be seen as fairly radical by many, but we now had the comfort in knowing that we weren’t alone in our vision.
That comfort didn’t last long.
Before we decided to work alongside the district’s pilot program, the response from district leadership about our gradebooks was fairly hands off. As long as we weren’t discriminating against students and clearly communicating to parents, we were in the clear.
But the moment we decided to work alongside the district, we were told that we would need to align our gradebook and targets to match the district.
Maybe at this point you’re thinking that that sounds perfectly reasonable, but you have to understand that not only had we spent months crafting our curriculum, targets, and conversion scale, our system was incredibly simple. We could explain our targets and our conversion scales to parents in under five minutes, and not only would they understand, they would be enthusiastic about our version of SRG. We had comments from parents that they wished they had been in a classroom like ours, that if they were in our kind of classroom in school maybe they wouldn’t have dropped out.
And again, I can feel your skepticism. Particularly those of you that are dealing with the district’s version of SRG in elementary or in the secondary pilot, but I swear I am telling you the truth.
We designed our SRG to be simple because we are teachers, and we actually know the demands of the classroom.
Here’s an example of a major way that our SRG system differed from the district’s current version.
We didn’t look at our standards and say, “Hmm. Wouldn’t it be great if we combined these standards to create scales and then seperate those scales into targets?” Instead, we looked at our standards and realized a few things after careful inspection. In 8-12 ELA we have a little under 250 standards, most of those standards are just the same 45-50 standards repeated each grade level with slight word changes, there was no way that we’d be able to get our students to master 50 standards in a year.
So, we took the ones that were repeated, divided them out over 9-12, and then for some of them, we broke the standards apart to make them easier to measure.
Our end result wasn’t perfect, and you might have issues with some of our choices, but hopefully, you can see that our goal was to achieve something that was manageable. When it comes to teaching for mastery, you really have to prioritize what you teach, and you have to be realistic with how much you plan to assess.
While some district liaisons have really listened to teachers and have incorporated feedback, it is apparent that the district, particularly the Academic Leadership Team, doesn’t have an eye for realism.
I’ve heard several teachers say something to the effect that SRG looks good on paper, but in practice it is just too daunting. If you take one thing from this opinion article, understand this, SRG SHOULD BE SIMPLE.
SRG, at its core, is just two things:
- Target Mastery
- Student Growth
As in, we allow our students to make mistakes, struggle, overcome obstacles and actually master their targets without penalizing them for practice work.
What about that sounds daunting? If anything, it should feel like a breath of fresh air. I can give my students the freedom to grow and focus on the learning instead of points, points, points.
Of course, anyone working within the current SRG framework knows that the district has taken SRG in a different direction?
Why might that be? Why would the district be so set on making our jobs harder than needed?
Maybe it’s because they aren’t utilizing SRG in order to encourage learning? Maybe it’s because they only see SRG as a means to improve consistency? As in, get more teachers teaching the same way, assessing the same way, and inputting grades the same way.
And look, I’m not necessarily saying that that’s a completely bad thing. Considering our high mobility rate in this district, it sure would be nice to have better consistency across the district, but when your purpose for introducing a district wide grading system change is about consistency instead of about student growth, you end up with a consistently complex grading system that consistently overloads teachers, consistently confuses students and parents, and consistently fails to lead to academic success.
Maybe, as their district adopted conversion scale seems to indicate, it's about inflating the graduation number? I understand that this is going to be a rocky transition, but when students can get a passing grade with a 1.01, many of them will check out as soon as they've reached that bare minimum as this past year's school closures have taught us.
While it is understandable the implementation for the entire district is necessarily going to have growing pains (special education requirements, report cards, etc.) that is no excuse for over complicating what ought to be a simple and meaningful new approach to education that we can all get behind.