Federal Way school grading committee delivers first update

FWPS - Courtesy Federal Way Public Schools
— image credit: Courtesy Federal Way Public Schools

After years of fielding complaints from parents on the standards-based grading system, Federal Way Public Schools officials and community members joined together earlier this year to form the Standards Based District Grading Advisory Committee as a way to curb confusion and improve practices.

Vince Blauser, executive director for Secondary Education, and Marie Verhaar, assistant superintendent,  presented the first update to the Federal Way school board on Tuesday, explaining what’s been done so far.

The committee first met in February after hearing input from parents at six grading forums in the beginning of the 2013-14 school year. The community-wide forums were held at various middle schools and generated a list of problems within the grading system, as well as outlined the strengths.

Former Superintendent Rob Neu then appointed the advisory committee to narrow the list of problems to five issues, which each got their own subcommittee.

The issues were “winnowed” to communication, behavior and characteristics, consistency, weighting and increments.

The communication subcommittee will focus on holding various proposals on how to hold teachers more accountable, improve emails from the parental view and analyze how teachers log information and clarify rules on test retakes. They’ll also research marketing techniques in how they communicate, allow for a “one stop shop” for emails and telephone calls and overall simplify communication as a whole.

Other standards-based grading issues that will be analyzed include: consistency in rubrics standards, assigning grade weight at an assignment level, whether incremental grading should be included and how teachers should address students’ study behavior with families.

Each subcommittee will then present their proposals to the superintendent for future policy recommendations to the school board of directors.

Committee members researched, gathered data, read articles and watched Webinars. They’re expected to attend all meetings for two years (ending June 2015).

In their research, members were guided by questions, such as, “In what way is this proposal advancing standards-based education in Federal Way?” And, how does the proposal align with the various policies and procedures in place and what research supports the proposal?

Blauser said initially the advisory committee was made up of 16 parents, eight students, eight teachers, two community members and six administrators, but about eight selected members never showed or resigned.

The committee will be looking for one student, one teacher and six parents for replacements in September.

“All applicants were reviewed and considered in an effort to create a well balanced committee of parents, community members, students and teachers representing various levels, ethnicities and regions of the district,” Blauser read in his presentation.

Since February, the committee has met on a monthly basis with their last meeting on June 19. Blauser said the committee will continue to do independent research during the summer and reconvene in September.

School board Vice President Geoffery McAnalloy said he’s currently on the incremental subcommittee that comprises two students, one teacher, a parent and himself and they’ve been unable to agree on two proposals thus far.

“Sometimes the feeling from the community is the work isn’t happening but there is work happening,” he said at the board meeting. “I can tell you five of us can’t agree on two proposals and where it is one increment but I still believe in my heart that the 1,2,3,4 [grading system] isn’t big enough of a spread, but we’re trying to do our due diligence and trying to do the research.”

Verhaar also noted after doing an audit of the standards this year, teachers and administrators have been able to decrease the high number of standards — up to 91 for some English or language arts classes — to about 25.

“Going any further would do some injustice to our students,” she said, adding that technical standards added between four to six to the Common Core technical subjects, such as P.E., music and career and technical education.

Although the district is still in the phase of learning how to make the standards-based grading system work better, Verhaar said other school districts around the nation have been calling the Federal Way school district for research purposes.

“We are one of the leading districts doing this work,” she said.

But some parents still have issues with the grading system.

Michael Scuderi, a parent of a Federal Way student and member of the advisory committee, said although the school district is “on the point and we’re going forward and creating something that no one else has really done,” he’d still like the board to consider in the future phasing out the standard-based grading system at the secondary level.

“… It’s not meeting all the needs of the students,” he said. “I’m thinking about college bound students, students who are going to go off to technical trades. I don’t think it’s there in terms of how we’re assessing the kids.”

Charles Hoff, also on the advisory committee as a community member, said ultimately it’s important for students to succeed after high school.

“… Getting all A’s here and then not doing well in your next step in education casts appall on everyone that comes after you,” he said. “We need to be consistent and we also need to be coupled.”

Hoff further explained that there needs to be an analysis done on students’ grades and test scores, as well as looking at students’ grades as freshmen in college to determine if they truly are college-ready after high school.

“Those are the kinds of things that need to then show up on the high school profile for college admissions,” Hoff said. “Then you can probably say our grades are meaningful because grade inflation is a major issue not just here but in other districts. To be able to say something concrete about that would be a wonderful thing for kids attempting to go to college.”

The standards-based grading system was adopted in 2011 with an initial motivation to improve the district’s graduation rate. In the past, teachers have had a difficult time explaining the grading system to parents and students who don’t understand it, which has sparked much controversy and debate over the years.

The district has contended that the 1-through-4 scale grading system allows for a more precise level of learning by requiring students to meet a number of “power standards,” which is supposed to prepare students for the 2014-15 Common Core State Standards testing.

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