Finding solutions to this grading system hell in Federal Way | If I Were Czar

Matthew Jarvis - Jarvis
Matthew Jarvis
— image credit: Jarvis

All of the excitement about the Federal Way School District’s grading system is enough to make a person’s head spin.

Terms like Power Law, Conditional Grading Matrix, Power Standards and Common Core mean very little to the average citizen in our district. For those of you trying to follow along at home, let me offer my explanation of the issues and major players involved with what many in the community see as “grading system hell.”

The grades

When most of us attended K-12, grades were done on a very subjective “A,B,C,D,F” system. The requirements of any particular letter grade varied dramatically from school to school, teacher to teacher and even student to student.

These grades typically relied heavily on averaging, which tended to hide areas where a student was struggling. Altogether, this system made it difficult to know from a student’s transcript where they needed help.

Fast forward several decades and we have the Federal Way School District trying to implement an objective grading system that clearly shows students, parents and teachers exactly where additional work is needed. Many of the country’s leading education experts support the logic behind the district’s grading system. So how did we go from the noble goal of accurately measuring student performance to having literally hundreds of outraged students, parents and teachers?

The players

First, we have the school board and district administration. As the old saying goes, the path to hell is paved with good intentions. While the district did some testing prior to implementation, they failed to consider the unintended consequences of their grading system.

For example, without reporting a GPA each quarter, how were students to apply for college and/or qualify for a good student insurance discount? More importantly, the district failed to clearly explain the rationale behind their decisions, assuming that students, parents and teachers would just follow along.

The district’s biggest mistake in this process was failing to proactively reach out to parents and teachers prior to implementation.

Next, we have the teachers who are learning their fourth set of grading policies in as many years. While the school board and administration were traveling the world and enjoying large raises, teachers were the ones having to explain to parents and students a grading system that nobody understands.

It baffles me that the district thought they could be successful without having teachers who support, or at least understand, the new grading system. While employee buy-in is important for any organization, it is critical for an organization where you have virtually no ability to fire employees trying to undermine management.

Last, but certainly not least, we have parents and taxpayers. This group can be split into two parts. First, we have those citizens who want to see results for the $200 million they pay in taxes to the school district each year.

These people are upset with what they see as misguided policies, poor performance and a lack of accountability. They are not necessarily opposed to a new grading system, but are upset that the district implemented a grading system without proper testing or adequate stakeholder feedback.

Our second group of parents, which includes a handful of teachers and students, are only angry because their child “deserved” an “A” but received a “C.” This group lives in the fairy tale that students should be graded on effort, not results and that teachers should be allowed to assign grades using their very subjective “professional judgment.” These are typically the same people who believe that their little Jimmy can do no wrong. Frankly, this latter group should be ignored.

The solution

While an entire column could be dedicated to the mistakes the district made leading us into this grading hell, there is no sense dwelling in the past (unless, of course, we are finally going to hold a government agency accountable for results).

Going forward, the district needs to work closely with, and listen to, stakeholders. They need to clearly communicate the logic behind their decisions, while working closely with parents, teachers and students to implement any changes.

In this process, administration must stop hiding behind “we’re professionals” and instead acknowledge that with test scores well below state averages, they can use all the help they can get.

Unfortunately, this grading system hell is only the most recent in a series of poor decisions made by the school board and district administration.

One can only hope that the district, along with our new school board members, can find solutions to this grading system, while also trying to restore community confidence. The real gauge of community confidence will come in February when the district asks voters to renew their $53 million operations levy.

Federal Way resident Matthew Jarvis can be reached at matthew@jarvisfinancial.com


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