Colleges approve of school district’s controversial grading system

Seattle University, Washington State University and Gonzaga University have given Federal Way Public Schools a thumbs up in the district’s shift to the oft-discussed Standards Based Education (SBE) system.

During the Federal Way School Board meeting Nov. 22, assistant superintendent of teaching for learning Dr. Josh Garcia shared the three universities’ thoughts on SBE — and how it affects Federal Way students’ chances of being admitted to those 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.

Numerous concerns have been expressed by parents and teachers alike regarding if SBE is an effective system for getting students into college. Garcia said he and his staff had reached out to seven in-state universities regarding SBE and its effect on students’ chances of moving on in higher education. The three aforementioned schools were the ones that had responded by the time of Garcia’s presentation on Nov. 22.

Garcia shared that Seattle University feels SBE is a useful system for making sure students have the skills and knowledge needed to succeed at the college level.

“Any approach that intentionally prepares students with the foundation that is needed for success the following year is a step in the right direction,” Garcia said. “Schools need to prepare students from (kindergarten) to graduation. In things like math, if a student misses a level, there will be a lasting effect. It’s outstanding that Federal Way Public Schools is using national standards when Washington state standards are unavailable. This makes students more competitive at the national level.”

As parents, students and staff adjust to SBE, one of the concerns that has been expressed from multiple parties is that SBE seems to eliminate letter grades. Garcia said this is an incorrect perception. He said that SBE power standards and learning targets do translate into letter grades. This is important, he said, because Washington State University was clear in its need for letter grades in determining acceptance of students.

WSU was “very crystal clear that you should still have letter grades, they should mean something, and you should be able to see success over time,” Garcia said.

WSU feels SBE has the potential to be a powerful tool for Federal Way students, Garcia noted.

“You should be able to track success over time,” he said, sharing WSU’s thoughts on SBE. “It might be a challenge to track student success in college right away with the implementation of new curriculum. However, the implementation of this kind of curriculum should produce success in college over time. One way to tell will be to track college graduation rates.”

Gonzaga seemed to have the most positive perception of SBE because it provides a level playing field and a clearer picture for Gonzaga when it considers students from Federal Way.

“The consistency in grading will benefit students when they apply to college,” Garcia said, sharing a response from Gonzaga representatives in a recent conversation. “Inequities within schools due to teacher scales that do not correspond with the school grading system can be detrimental to students. This can affect both admissions decisions and scholarship opportunities. We love to know that an ‘A’ in one class is equal to an ‘A’ in another class. Not only does this benefit the student, but it also develops a strong academic reputation for the schools in Federal Way.”

Garcia said Gonzaga does not see SBE as being a disadvantage to Federal Way students, as long as the university can determine how the letter grades were generated.

Federal Way Public Schools administrators, including Garcia, Superintendent Rob Neu and others, have plans to meet with the University of Washington in the near future, as well as hold a conference call with the UW, Garcia said. FWPS is also planning to have a conversation with Central Washington University about SBE and its effects on Federal Way students’ chances at becoming Wildcats.

For more information on SBE, visit


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