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School district defends and explains standards based grading

The controversial standards based grading (SBG) system is back on the radar in Federal Way.

As rumblings started spreading throughout the various school communities about more hiccups with SBG, the district had Decatur principal Dave Brower give a presentation at the Oct. 29 school board meeting on what the grading system is — and how the district believes it should work.

"We have to talk about grades as communication," Brower said. "The purpose of grades is to communicate a student's current level of progress….And so the focus has to be on the learning they need. What they need to learn, know and do to be able to be successful."

The initial motivation for replacing the traditional grading system with SBG was to improve the district’s graduation rate, which currently hovers just above 70 percent. SBG went into effect in the fall of 2011, and sparked a public debate over its strengths and shortcomings.

In addition, some teachers have had a difficult time explaining the grading system to parents and students who don't understand it.

According to Brower and the district, SBG allows for a more precise level of learning, as opposed to the previous grading systems that most students and parents have known in the past.

Brower highlighted the issues of the "traditional" grading system (a 100 point system where the final grade is points earned over total points), and shared his own personal experience to illustrate the point.

"There were classes in which I got an A, and which, quite frankly, I didn't learn a whole lot," he said. "I had learned to play the game. I had learned how many points I needed, and that was the focus for me in some classes."

Brower used the analogy of the older system being one singular box "that all the learning, progress and achievement" was put into. This can be problematic, he said.

"There's some great advantages to that, (but) one of the shortcomings of that is, successes can mask deficiencies, and deficiencies can hang around your neck like a millstone," he said.

Continuing with the box analogy, Brower said SBG is a number of smaller boxes in which each student is evaluated on a standard by standard basis.

"I'm no longer trying to use one box to communicate all the learning and proficiency of everything in the class," he said. "I'm saying, 'Here are the most important standards for the course, and let me communicate your progress in each box individually.'"

The advantage, he said, is that students' deficiencies are no longer hidden.

To drive the point home, Brower shared a story about a colleague's son who had done poorly on a middle-school test for fractions. When the colleague called the student's teacher for help on how to make sure the child knew fractions, the teacher replied that the student should focus on decimals — so the student could do well on the decimal test because it "all averages out."

And so, Brower said, this student would continue in school without an understanding of a fundamental part of basic mathematics.

"There is that lack of clarity in communication (of student progress)," Brower said.

Beyond that, Brower said he thinks many of the pains that students and families may be experiencing regarding SBG may be teacher practices that don't align well with the system.

"If we're changing the way we communicate from a single box to multiple boxes, and we have practices that were designed to put information into a single box, we have to change these practices," he said. "I've sat in many conversations with students and parents and teachers, and with community members, and we discover that many of their concerns are not about the grading. They're about the practices that are being used. That may not give us the information we need to communicate progress."

Brower also said that ultimately, the overall grade for a student comes down to "the teacher's professional judgment," and that all the components of SBG are designed to help inform the teacher's judgment as best as possible.

"This has not been a whimsical, capricious endeavor," Brower concluded. "As I've had conversations with students, I find that much of the concern is based on either misinformation, or concerns about practices that don't support and promote communicating standards at that level."

Grade inflation, student achievement

Superintendent Rob Neu also had Brower touch briefly on problems with part of the algorithm SBG uses to determine student success, called the "Power Law."

Concerned parent Michael Scuderi, at the board's previous meeting on Oct. 15, had pointed out that the Power Law was allowing for an unusual skewing of grades if students got a low score at the beginning of a class.

Neu and Brower conceded that the Power Law was indeed causing an "inflation," but that the equation had been modified.

"We found…that if a kid failed early, it put their starting point low, and put their trajectory on a fairly steep slope, and the computer was over-reporting their proficiency," Brower said. "We were able to modify that Power Law equation to compensate for that…so it doesn't skew the learning. The modified Power Law now more accurately communicates a student's performance and is in more alignment with the teacher's professional judgment."

Board president Claire Wilson said that she, as a parent of FWPS students, had to "divorce" the idea of the 1-through-4 grading scale being coupled to an actual letter grade.

"Now, when I look at the numbers, I'm looking for progress," she said. "If I see a 1, I only want to see one 1. When I get a report card, I will be looking for a letter grade, which is a combination of everything in the box. And that, to me, is a finite grade that says, 'Given everything I've seen along the way, given the progress and achievement I've seen, this is the end product.' It was a way of separating the two in my mind, and saying one is a progress measure, and one is a grade. They're both critically important, and they both are different than what most of us have experienced."

Board member Tony Moore said he thinks SBG is the correct move for the district because, as they indicated, they hope it means a more accurate reflection of student achievement.

"I think, all too often, it's easy to use grades as a means to get into college, and not necessarily as an assessment of learning," he said.

Board vice president Angela Griffin said she recently spoke with students about SBG, and that they found it to be a net positive for their education.

"What I heard back, they were saying it provides (them) clarity," she said. "And I asked, 'What does a one mean?' and I was told, 'I'm not getting a grade. It means there's something else I need to learn, I need to go back to my teacher and have a conversation about what I need to learn.'"

Public meetings

The district is hosting forums at Federal Way middle schools for parents to learn more about the new grade book and how grades are calculated.

Each parent forum will last about an hour, and will include an explanation of grading policy, a demonstration of how to create a parent account and use the online grade book, and a time for questions.

Upcoming forums:

• Saghalie Middle School: 6 p.m. Oct. 30

• Kilo Middle School: 6 p.m. Nov. 20

• Lakota Middle School: 6 p.m. Nov. 21

• Sacajawea Middle School: 6 p.m. Nov. 25

• Educational Service Center, 33330 8th Ave. S.: 5 p.m. Dec. 3. The school board will host a study session.

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