Grading system elicits both cheers and jeers in Federal Way schools

Standards Based Education (SBE) and the attached grading methodology, continues to be a hot topic in Federal Way schools.

The new system was implemented by Federal Way Public Schools this year. SBE is aimed at creating standardization for teachers and students regarding grading, class content and other important areas.

During the Nov. 22 school board meeting, board members and Superintendent Rob Neu once again heard from a number of staff from throughout the district, with the staff detailing the issues and problems they continue to encounter with SBE and its grading system.

However, a few voices in support of SBE were heard, with two principals from the district giving their full support to the idea.

Marin Miller, principal at Twin Lakes Elementary, said he feels SBE is working, even if it’s been a painful process so far.

“Over the last year, I’ve seen a lot of good things,” Miller said. “Change is hard. And it truly is. But, ultimately, when I look at this system, I ask myself, ‘Are we moving in the right direction? Are we doing what’s best for kids?’ And the answer is yes. Standards Based Education is truly what’s best for kids.”

Miller said he feels this way for a couple of reasons. First, he feels SBE is a good policy because it’s “focusing the conversation.” He feels SBE generates a stronger and clearer dialogue between teachers, staff, students and families. Another benefit of SBE, he feels, is the ability it gives teachers to know what a student has learned and needs to learn, especially when a student transfers schools within the district.

Paul Marquardt, principal at Olympic View Elementary, said SBE sparks conversation and innovation among teachers. He shared an anecdote about his twin daughters’ experiences in a neighboring school district, saying the two girls had a difficult time in kindergarten and first grade, due to a lack of personal instruction from their teachers and a lack of celebration of success.

This year, he said, they have a teacher who has sparked the love of learning in them, and provides them with clear goals and celebrates their achievements when they meet those goals. Marquardt said SBE provides this for Federal Way.

“That’s the idea behind SBE. Clear common expectations that can be measured and celebrated for all students in every classroom, regardless of the teacher, regardless of student background,” he said. “It’s not been easy. The idea is simple. The work is not. Things have gotten in the way this year. Learning new technology, communication and understanding. I applaud our teachers and our district for pushing on.”

Marquardt shared some of the feedback he’s heard from his staff members as the transition to SBE has taken place.

“I’ve been very proud of my teachers at Olympic View. It’s not been easy. But they’ve rallied together. They’ve been solution based. They’ve supported each other, they’ve called each other…They’ve worked together. They’ve not let technology stop them. They know standards based is good for kids. I see teachers coming up with great learning progressions for learning targets, and thinking purposefully about how students demonstrate understanding. I hear things like, ‘I feel like I’m a better teacher. I know what my students need.’ Most importantly, I see people sitting with kids, individually, talking about their progress, and talking about what they need to do next.”

Two teachers shared their experiences with SBE so far, with Thomas Jefferson’s Steven Hall saying student achievement has declined so far this year in his advanced history class, and Decatur’s Robin Chapman echoing the same concern with her advanced math class.

“I realize we can’t go back. I recognize the benefit of the philosophy behind the academic acceleration program and standardized grading, and desire to see it succeed,” he said. “Even the greatest plans require modification due to unforeseen circumstances and results.”

Hall shared a few pages of his grade book, showing board members that the number of incomplete assignments — or assignments not turned in — has increased drastically under the new policies. According to Hall, the same holds true for tests.

“I find myself looking at my grade book and asking, ‘Why are my students’ scores dramatically lower?’” he said. “What is concerning is that I am an International Baccalaureate teacher. And I teach five IB history classes. Over 90 percent of my students go to college after high school, and nearly the same percentage graduate with a college degree. These are our best. These are our award winners. These students are supposed to represent our most college prepared student body…Never have I seen zeroes like this. I find myself questioning the capability for students to succeed, and my ability to succeed  as a teacher.”

Chapman feels SBE blunts the desire of students to achieve above and beyond, citing a conversation she had with one of her own students.

“‘A’ grades can be a challenge for students. When I was young, I learned more because I studied everything in depth, knowing that there would be one obscure question on that test that only hours of studying would answer. With our new policy, students no longer have the elusive A to keep their attention on studying,” she said. “They get an A for merely learning 69.7 percent of the material…Our students are getting A’s for getting D material collected. I teach calculus, I teach some of the top students in the school. Many of the students have told me they don’t need to study anymore because they can get an A without trying. This was said to me by a girl, who when I wrote a letter of recommendation, she handed me her senior profile…class rank: 1. She is on target to be our valedictorian. And she told me, ‘Ms. Chapman, I don’t need to study anymore because I get the same grade anyway.’”

Chapman said if the new system is breeding this type of attitude in students, one must wonder if they are being prepared for the next step in their education.

“Our best and our brightest students…How much are they really learning…if we’re handing A’s out like candy? Our students have to get out there and compete with students who had to toil with A’s. We are not only short-changing our students’ learning, but we’re giving them an unfair advantage in college admissions. Entering an elite college on laurels earned by mediocrity sets our kids up for failure in the long run.”


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