SCC middle and high schools making switch to standards based grading

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With the board of education's approval, which was given during its August regular meeting, the St. Croix Central School District will officially be making the transition from its current grading system to a standards based grading system.

"The current system we have, we can't identify where students are succeeding or where they are struggling. With this new system, we can identify those things in a much more clear way," said Director of Teaching and Learning Glenn Webb said. "More importantly, we allow parents to see what their kids are strong in....versus just a grade on a report. You could see an 'F' for a grade and think your kid is a failure. But really, they are just a failure in these four things, but they also have these three things where they are really good."

According to Webb, the district has been working on changing the grading system as far back as 2010 when the school board approved a grading change policy. The district then performed book studies on grading and had a grading committee which involved staff. The groups were tasked with figuring out how to make the changes they wanted. After a year-long hiatus from the process, the district made several changes at the high school in spring of 2014 based on information they gathered during their book studies. However, those changes weren't a complete switch to standards based grading, just a readjustment to align some of their practices with the district goals.

That following summer into fall, the elementary school started doing standards based assessing and reporting.

"From that point, we've continued to change and modify what we are doing at the elementary. We have been constantly updating reports cards and so on," Webb said. "But we never made the move at the middle school, thus, never made the full to move to the high school as well. We changed practices, but hadn't made the next step."

Changing standards

Last year, the district rewrote its course/subject curriculums to focus on the district's essential standard. From those discussions, the district decided to move to grading based on those standards which they had identified.

"We have them and we know these are the things we have to guarantee the kids are going to learn. It is not all the standards because there is no way you can cover all of them in-depth," Webb said. "We have identified essentials, like a lot of other schools and the state have done. The state gives directions on which are the big standards for each grade level for math, reading and all of the other subjects."

At this point, less than a year from the change at the middle school, the district has identified the essential standards in about 80 percent of its courses and subjects to this point. The plan is to finish the essential standards work by June 2018.

"That will prepare us for the change at the middle school next fall," Webb said. "We already have the current fifth-grade have been doing standards based grading for years in the middle school building and just bump it up to sixth, seventh and eighth next year. As we move into next year, we will build that reporting piece and build those assessments and then do the same thing the following year for the high school."

Mixed bag

According to Webb, there has been a mixed bag as far as parent and staff approval of the switch to standards based grading. Most of the questions about the change revolve around "what was wrong with the old system?"

"Although we have had some people question the change, most have kind of realized that we currently can't precisely identify what kids know and what do we do when they don't know," Webb said. "If you are just grading on a percentage scale and giving kids a mark on their paper, you don't know what standards they are addressing. It is narrowing that down and defining it. The important thing is the success of all kids. Our goal is to guarantee groups of essential standards for all kids. All kids have to advance prepared for the next grade level."

Although the district has been working towards standards based grading for several years now, Webb realizes that the mind shift from grading one way for so many years to the new system won't be easy for some of the staff, parents or students.

"I think that in the three years we have done the standards based reporting at the elementary, parents have really been happy," Webb said. "Now, we can describe each standard and show the parents where the kids are excelling and then show them which things they can still work on. In the old system you just can't do that.

"The why behind it all is that it is evident for kids what they are supposed to know. We have been doing all the work, we just haven't switched completely in our assessments and how we report it. Those are the final things that have to change."

Making adjustments

The hardest part about the system change, which was brought up by school board members before they approved the change in August, is figuring out how to adjust the high school's current structure with GPAs, class rank and the Valedictorian/Salutatorian honors.

"The high school piece is harder because you have that it's not a strict 'everybody follow this same way,'" Webb said. "You also have the GPA issues and the class rank issues. Those are all things we are working through right now, and that is why we are giving ourselves enough time to work through it. We are not getting rid of things, we are just changing and modifying them. So we will still have some sort of system, but we don't know what that will look like in the end."

According to Webb, most districts that have made the switch to a standards based grading have done so mainly at the elementary level. Those that have made changes to their grading system at the higher grade levels haven't fully integrated the standards based grading system at those levels.

"Once we are said and done, we will have it set up similar to other school districts that have videos and such that talk about standards based grading," Webb said. "What I'm doing right now is gathering that background information on how other schools are doing things so I can bring it back to our team to make sure they are fully informed. It is a team thing that we have said 'yes, we are going to move forward with this.' This is just really, and truly, a way to serve kids better."