NS could be transitioning toward a new, standards-based grading system in the near future. While change can be frightening and confusing, this new method may not actually be so new after all.
“Our teachers have already established a guaranteed viable curriculum,” said NS Principal Nan Ault. “We’re guaranteeing that we’re going to deliver those things to [students]—not necessarily that every kid’s going to get it, but we’re going to deliver it.”
This is a key part of a standards-based philosophy in schools, along with the principles of the relatively new Common Core standards. Most teachers are already trying to teach their students a mastery of concepts rather than having their curriculum based around simple memorization or busywork.
“The philosophy behind it is that you want to have strategies in your classroom that allow kids to meet proficiency in a concept,” Ault said. “You want kids to learn—you don’t want to just throw it at them and move on.”
If NS is already striving for a standards-based curriculum, then what would the implementation of a standards-based grading system look like? These are two things that are related but different. Would a system that grades students based on proof of mastery in a concept be better than the grading scale currently in place?
“This standards-based grading scale isn’t something that’s new to all teachers,” said Instructional Coach Adam Peterson. “There are several—I think many—teachers who are kind of doing that. I think parents are going to be a harder shift than the teachers. It’s a cultural change.”
Teachers, faced with the task of preparing a young generation for an uncertain future, are no strangers to change. But some wonder whether a change like this one is truly needed.
“I think there are some real positives with standards-based grading. However, education likes to change things on a regular basis,” said school counselor and English teacher Ben Cox. “The question is whether or not it’s necessary.”
Cox has already started to adapt his classrooms to parts of the standards-based philosophy. While he is concerned about what implementing standards-based grading at NS would mean for teachers who are already under heavy demands, he trusts that the right decision will be made.
“While I do have some reservations about standards-based grading and its implementation, I have complete confidence in Nan and our administration to do what is best for the students and the school,” Cox said.
Some schools that have jumped into a standards-based system of grading have had negative outcomes. When too much emphasis is placed on mastery of topics and too little on soft skills such as getting assignments in on time, the door is left open for student to try and cheat the system or get by with only a minimal effort.
“The problem is, standards-based grading comes with some interesting approaches by other schools that create kind of a nasty taste in our mouths,” Ault said.
That nasty taste could stem from concerns that a standards-based grading scale would shelter students trying to get by on laziness and procrastination.
“We still need kids to be motivated to participate, because if you’re not participating, how am I going to know if you’re learning?” Peterson said. “We still need to hold kids accountable with their time so it’s not these deathbed confessions at the end of the quarter.”
It is also important to understand that the school curriculum, and by extension the grading system, should be concerned not only with increasing and testing knowledge, but also with preparing students for the world that comes after high school.
“Your test scores will show your knowledge. What about your work ethic? I think the fact that grades show both is a good thing,” Cox said.
With all these fears and concerns under consideration, Ault assured that the transition to a standards-based grading system will a cautious one.
“We’re still just trying to figure out how this looks for us,” Ault said. “I’m not interested in creating a game, because teachers will play the game and so will kids.”
By learning from the mistakes of other schools, NS is looking to create its own version of standards-based grading that would be best for both teachers and students. While it may seem easier to simply stick with the same basic system that has been around for decades, it is time to talk about the future.
“It’s come our way. They conversation is here; we’re going to have to have it,” Ault said. “I know that the district is moving in that direction, and so we’re going to have to participate, but we want to participate in a way that makes sense to us.”
That conversation may be a tricky one to have, but Peterson has faith in Ault and her leadership.
“Teachers are always under a lot of pressure to change and to improve and to hone their craft,” Peterson said. “I believe that Nan isn’t going to ask them to stretch more than they can.”
Hopefully a new grading system could better display the academic accomplishments of students to teachers, parents and the students themselves while still valuing soft skills like punctuality and dedication. The details will be worked out in the future, but for now there is no cause for alarm.
“We’re going to figure out how to do it our way,” Ault said.