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School Board approves changes to the grading system

Superintendent Rob Neu - File photo
Superintendent Rob Neu
— image credit: File photo

The Federal Way Public Schools (FWPS) Board of Directors voted to make a change to the district's standards-based grading (SBG) system during the its Nov. 26 meeting.

The change will switch the district's grading system off the controversial and confusing algorithm known as the "Power Law," to a more traditional averaging methodology. The change will take effect Dec. 13 and apply to students in secondary school — sixth through 12th grade.

The change came after the district received data from surveys of teachers, parents and students, and also looked at possible changes to students grades between the "Power Law" and averaging methods.

Federal Way Superintendent Rob Neu and district official Ron Mayberry gave a joint presentation to the board and the members of the community Nov. 26, explaining that the switch from the "Power Law" to an averaging model would be static for most students.

"There was 12,166 A's under power law. It became 11,629 under averaging," Mayberry said, referencing a chart in a PowerPoint presentation. "513 of those A's moved down to a B, 22 to a C…We had some that moved up, some that moved down."

"Basically, in the aggregate, there were 34 more A's, 1,606 more B's, 668 fewer C's, 985 fewer F's, in our four comprehensive high schools," Neu said. "As Ron indicated, 537 A's will be lowered by going to averaging. 133 B's will become A's, 74 will be lowered. 1,587 C's will be raised, 33 will be F's."

Neu noted that across other demographic lines, such as race or socioeconomic status, the change over from the "Power Law" to averaging was essentially static. An analysis of the last three years of grading data, if it had been on the averaging system, was also presented by Mayberry, with the results again being relatively static.

Perhaps most revealing were the survey results presented by Neu. According to Neu, a quick analysis of the survey results from teachers (638 who identified what grade level and/or school they were at), the majority of teachers felt they had a solid understanding of SBG. However, when asked if the current system accurately reflected their students learning, only 42 percent said "yes." When asked if the current system was effective in communicating student learning, only 30 percent responded in the positive.

Of the 734 students surveyed, the results were fairly similar. A majority of them felt they understood what SBG was all about, but when asked if they felt it was an accurate reflection of their grade, only 21 percent replied in the affirmative. Only 19 percent said they felt it was effective at communicating their academic progress.

Neu reiterated a point that he's used in defense of SBG since the most recent round of controversy began earlier this fall, saying that ultimately, the data from SBG only provides part of the picture for teachers, and that the grade is still determined by teachers' professional judgments.

"Grades are determined, not calculated," he said, quoting Ken O'Connor, an international grading expert.

FWPS board member Tony Moore pointed out that the switch to averaging could lead to a different set of parents being at the next board meeting, angry at the effect on their children's grades, and wondered if that was something that had been taken into consideration by district officials.

Neu said that was something that had been taken into consideration, and that the district was ready to meet that challenge by having "constant conversations" and being ready to "work through those changes moving forward."

Since the switch to SBG began in 2011, one of the main selling points for the system is that it more accurately reflects student learning/achievement, which, ultimately, leads to better prepared students as they enter the work force or move on in their academic careers. Moore, along with board president Claire Wilson, expressed reservations that this switch back to an averaging methodology would put the district right back where it started.

"One of the things that was listed in that graph, is that there would be 900 fewer F's," Moore said. "That seems like a little bit of grade inflation to me. My only concern there is that the kids not just get what they need by getting good grades to go to college, but be able to succeed."

"My other concern is that if we have students that have a 1 or a 2, and now because of averaging, we're passing them along," Wilson said. "And Director Moore has a concern, as I do, those are often times critical, fundamental frameworks that students need in their learning in order to move forward

"If those 1's or 2's are reflective of things that are critical pieces of knowledge, how are we going to make sure that 1 or 2 doesn't stay a 1 or 2 and then down the road we're in the same boat as before, which is students not passing or students not getting grades because they missed that critical target?"

"That's…the conundrum," Neu said. "On the one hand, 1's and 2's aren't passing a standard, we could very well be passing students along who aren't mastering essential skills. But, on the other hand, our current system is not communicating accurately…Students and parents are having a really hard time understanding the system. And that's what we're trying to balance right now."

The board will be holding a work study about SBG on Dec. 3 at Federal Way High School, to allow for a more open forum on the topic between themselves and community members. That meeting will begin at 5 p.m.

To see any of the information presented by Neu at the Nov. 26 board meeting, visit www.fwps.org.

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