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New grading system looks like progress

The Roaring Fork School District has pushed A, B, C, D and F letter grades out the door at its four elementary schools. Instead, students will be evaluated for academic progress three times a year using far more detailed, standards-based proficiency reports.

Although some nitpicky cultural questions remain, this newspaper says hooray!

The new report cards are a logical extension of standards-based education, which measures academic progress step-by-step. Standards provide a clear outline of the skills students need to learn. The new report cards will allow teachers to objectively measure the progress students have made in mastering each skill.



Essentially, standards break apart a subject, such as fifth-grade mathematics, into a half dozen study areas, which are further divided into specific skills.

For example, fifth-grade math students need to learn, among other things, the standard of “number sense and problem solving.” They’ll be evaluated within that standard on their proficiency in working with whole numbers, comparing and ordering fractions and decimals, making change, writing numbers, counting and estimating.



For each of those skills, at each trimester, teachers will rate students on a 1 to 4 scale. A rating of 1 means the student has been exposed to the subject but hasn’t begun to learn it. A 2 rating means the student is working on the skill, but is not yet proficient. A 3 rating means the student is proficient, and a 4 rating means the student is using that skill to expand their learning in other skills.

Compared to this system, the long-standing letter-grade system seems overly generalized and prone to missing the gaps in students’ learning. Most adults can look back on their education and see the pieces they didn’t really grasp.

As Judy Haptonstall, the school district’s assistant superintendent and curriculum director said, “With this new system, we will teach until the student learns it, no matter what it takes.”

While the new standards-based report cards mark a much-needed change, the transition won’t be easy. Letter grades are deeply ingrained in our culture. Trading them for a series of proficiency ratings will call for new ways of thinking about learning, and about students.

For example, how will schools reconcile letter grades and proficiency ratings for students midway through their school years?

What happens to the concepts of grade point average, honor roll and valedictorian?

How will colleges and universities know where prospective students rank in their high school class, or will rank no longer matter?

If students are learning on an academic continuum, and learn at different paces, what happens to the structure of age-oriented grade levels?

Educators are taking a huge step with this change. It’s a step in the process that began a decade ago as the nation’s public schools looked for more accountability in how students are taught and what they know and can do by the time they graduate from high school.

For now, the proficiency reports will be used as a one-year test in the elementary schools only. But educators expect the system to eventually be adopted at the middle-school and high-school level.

It will be a mind-bending adjustment for parents, and this newspaper suggests that the schools consider a dual grading system, using the old letter grades and the new proficiency scores at each trimester, for a few years.

With a dual system, parents would be able to translate their child’s academic progress from the familiar but less precise letter-grade system to the new and more detailed proficiency score.

Increasing the comfort factor will be important in making standards based report cards successful.

– Heather McGregor, Managing Editor


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