Making the Grade

Say what?

The dreaded F.

Most parents are alarmed by that letter on a child’s report card. But they won’t see it this year in Milwaukee’s K-8 and elementary schools, as the district does away with traditional letter grades in favor of a new scoring system that separates academic progress from social skills.

In doing so, Milwaukee Public Schools joins a growing number of districts that are eliminating traditional letter grades or untethering student behaviors from academic marks.

The changes — which can include no longer docking points from academic grades for late assignments and offering students multiple chances to submit their work — are a big shift for some teachers, and a head-scratcher for many parents.

“I think (district administrators) want letter grades to go away because they want to blur the line of failing students,” said Sara Andrea-Neill, a parent in the Kenosha Unified School District.

I think you’ve got in one, Sara Andrea-Neill. The new system will give students grades of AD (advanced), PR (proficient), BA (basic) and MI (minimal, but he’s totally not failing so for the love of God please don’t beat your kid). They will also get a separate feedback on “effort” of 1-4.

This is not that unusual. My wife’s high school in Australia used a similar system. However, I think the critics are missing something important. It seems to me that the larger problem is that the grading system continues the trend of emphasizing competence and proficiency over excellence. Notice what is lost. F becomes MI; D becomes BA, C become PR, B becomes AD and A … just disappears. There’s no longer a way to distinguish between kids who are above average and those who are truly exceptional.

I also don’t like that the system interferes with the teacher’s management of their classes by not letting them demand assignments on time. Anyone who has taught at any level above teaching the dog to fetch knows that deadlines are critical to get students to finish assignments and to preserve your sanity. You can’t have students turning in assignment willy-nilly and maintain a consistent pace in class.

Comments are closed.

  1. AlexInCT

    There’s no longer a way to distinguish between kids who are above average and those who are truly exceptional.

    Soon there will only be two. The masters and the serfs…

    Thumb up 6

  2. Mississippi Yankee

    There’s no longer a way to distinguish between kids who are above average and those who are truly exceptional.

    As it turns out we no longer distinguish countries that way either at least according to Barry and Vlad.

    Although my star is in it’s decline everyday I weep for what we have left for our children and grandchildren.

    Thumb up 3

  3. hist_ed

    Next year my wealthy Seattle area district will get rid of letter grades for middle school. I could write small book on the many ways this sucks. We will be going to a four point system, too (half points are ok). 1=minimal, 2=approaching standard, 3=at standard, 4=masterful as all fuck (or something like that). In practice, this means we will give out a lot more 3 grades than B grades in years past, but far fewer 4’s than A’s. (so, at least for us, your equivalence isn’t quite right. C- to A- becomes a 3; A becomes a 4)

    After they leave at the end of their 8th grade year they will go on to high school. Suddenly homework will matter. Don’t turn in your work and in some classes you will get a C or a D even if you ace the tests. This big shift in how work is graded will happen the first year that your grades matter for college transcripts. When we were a junior high, we frequently saw 7th graders have trouble adjusting to real homework schedules. We had two years to work on this before it was screwing with their chances to get into college. Now they will have this adjustment the year grades start to matter for college. For many it will not be pretty.

    This is a major trend-many districts will switch to this. The Gates Foundation will fund studies and pilot programs. And in 15 years or so everyone will figure out it sucks and go back to the old way after screwing up half a generation of kids’ study habits (well screwing them up more than they already were).

    Thumb up 9

  4. Mississippi Yankee

    We had two years to work on this before it was screwing with their chances to get into college. Now they will have this adjustment the year grades start to matter for college. For many it will not be pretty.

    hist_ed, do you suspect this might be a feature and not a flaw? The new society we are approaching will require many more drones than college grads I believe…

    Thumb up 1

  5. Hal_10000 *

    hist_ed, we’ve had issues here in our college town with new wave bullshit too. A couple of years ago, they latched onto this new way of teaching math that set all the kids back a couple of years. They’ve tried various reading experiments too. Why do people constantly think they need to reinvent the wheel with education? Our ways of teaching weren’t selected at random. They are the result of many years of trying different ideas.

    Thumb up 2

  6. hist_ed

    If I added up all the time I have spent in trainings and seminars learning new ways to teach I’d probably cry. Imagine if I had been able to use that time to grade more papers, create better lessons and work one on one with students (the last is probably the best way to get results for kids that are falling through the cracks).

    This afternoon I attended a meeting of teacher who deal with kids who have failed out state test-the MSP. Washington State has been spending millions of dollars a year funding these types of classes and only just seems to realize they have no idea if they are doing any good. So now we are going to spend a lot of time creating assessments and crunching data. The last few times I taught these classes for a full year (mine this semester goes to another teacher next semester-sheer idiocy) my pass rate on the MSP for these kids was between 80 and 85%-one year the highest rate the school has had with these classes. Those that didn’t pass were the kids that didn’t do the work. But they can’t say to me “You have a proven track record of success, just keep teaching” they have to burden me with extra hours of paper work, number crunching and reporting. I also have to come up with a plan for the kids that aren’t willing to do the work-alas “Kick them out of class and replace them with kids who will.” is not an option. I now, a few weeks into the school year, I have to convert my grading to pass/fail (want to inspire mediocrity in students? Make the grade for a 99% and a 62% the same), change my curriculum to add in all sorts of extra benchmark assessments and other “Targeted instruction” and email the parents who came to curriculum night fucking YESTERDAY that most of the things I told them about the class will change. Oh and we simply can’t say to other newer and/or less successful teachers: “Hey there, Hist_ed’s been doing well at this, maybe you should try what he’s doing.”

    Thumb up 4

  7. hist_ed

    Sorry for the rant. To respond to you Hal, I think the root of the problem is that we are always trying to find the magic bullet that will turn average kids into Harvard material. There are so many fads in teaching (Small schools, one to one computers, whole language etc. etc.) because there are people who believe in magical thinking. Same people who think you can pass 2000 page laws that will have no unintended negative consequences. Last year we eliminated our honors program. It wasn’t fair that we selected 30 kids from each grade and put them in a special class. Now all our history and English classes have “honors options” that every kid can try to challenge themselves. We also got rid of most pull out special ed for English as well. So in the average classroom we went from teaching the average kids (say the middle 60%) and having targeted classes for the bottom 20 and the top 20 to teaching 90% in the same room. Honestly its been good for the middle kids-the high achievers bring them up. But it sucks for the honors material. There is no way I can teach them at the same level as a separate honor class. But its been the worst for the low end-they are lost. The only other alternative is to bore 70% of the class to tears. Soooo (he said realizing he was off on a tangent) the ed school keep churning out Ph Ds with new theories that just have to make the big difference-experienced teachers shake their heads and try to figure out the minimum of bullshit they have to produce to get by and still have time to teach and the kids suffer because we don’t have as much time to do real teaching.

    And yes, if a kid handed in a rambling essay like that I’d send it back to them. But I can blame the merlot tonight.

    Thumb up 3

  8. InsipiD

    as the district does away with traditional letter grades in favor of a new scoring system that separates academic progress from social skills.

    Does this mean that social skills will somehow count equal to academic progress? Like the cute popular girl who doesn’t know 2×2 will be on equal footing with the awkward nerd?

    There are two problems here. We’ve got it all wrong when it comes to schools. Also, everyone who tries to fix it makes it worse because they somehow believe that doing the opposite of the right thing will fix it.

    Thumb up 2

  9. Seattle Outcast

    Holy shit! The 70’s are back!

    The school district I was in tried this BS for about three or four years when I was in grade school. EVERYBODY HATED IT – that is, except for a couple of administrators in the school district for some strange reason. This was also the same school district that implemented the ITA literacy program in 1968 to utter failure for several years as well, and was one of the first ones to jump on the bandwagon of teaching “math” without actually bothering to teach kids how to do math (for some reason this one has stuck – most kids today are completely lost without a calculator to do basic sums).

    I always blamed the nearby university with Marxist professors that had way too much influence on local politics.

    Thumb up 6

  10. grady

    If you make the grading system ambiguous or irrelevant, you not only will reduce motivation in high achievers, you will make the standardized tests the only thing that matters in college admissions. Maybe the applications that require essays will also use weight from those as well.

    I thought people had problems with only using the SAT/ACT for a barometer?

    Thumb up 3

  11. Hal_10000 *

    SO, it does seem like we get into this education cycle:

    Phase 1: Hey, let’s try out this new modern system that I’m sure will improve education!
    Phase 2: Holy shit, that sucks. Let’s go back to the tried and true.
    Phase 3: New administrators come in.
    Phase 4: Hey, let’s try out this new modern system that I’m sure will improve education!

    Thumb up 8

  12. hist_ed

    I’ll dig up what our grades are going to be like next year and post them. Students are assessed on a 4 point scale on a bunch of categories and on specific skills and knowledge (that, by the way, is a big struggle in ed right there:are we to emphasize skills or facts? If only 2 or 3 kids in a class of 7th graders can coherently explain why the 4th of July is a holiday is that ok if they have been taught the skills to find that information? Yes that’s a real example from a couple of years ago 2 or 3 out of 90.). It makes it easier for parents to understand why their kid is failing and forces teachers to know more about their kids (good ones already know this) but just doesn’t reflect high school, college and the real world (can you imagine you boss coming by to spend 40 minutes explaining in detail why the report you wrote sucks: organization, grammar, spelling, etc.-might happen once or twice before he fired you). Even though it would be more work I would be kind of ok with this if we also still attached a letter grade. Alas, they will go away.

    And yes, SO, this has been done before. The big ideas seem to cycle in generations. Can’t wait for some bright Ph. D. to start pushing open classrooms again. My closest high school still have huge problems with their building because it was built in the early 70s and separate classrooms were so Euro-patriarchal or some shit.

    Thumb up 2

  13. hist_ed

    Nowadays Hal you have step 5: Bill Gates thinks its cool and gives a shitload of money out to try things-because school has tots of money for extra teachers and attracts more motivated teachers because it is new and cool, students achievement does rise. 5 or 8 years later extra funding runs out, newer teachers become a little burned out (or go on to the next cool thing) and after all the dust settles we move on to the next new thing (but if a school building is built to adapt to the new cool thing, then its students are screwed over for the next 50 years.)

    3 or 4 years ago the high school I taught in a couple of years before that spent a 100 million on a new building-specifically designed for the “Academy” or small schools model. Half way through the first year the staff said “Fuck this shit” and voted overwhelmingly to dump it. It works fine now for most subjects except science. They got screwed because the science rooms are all far away from each other so they can’t share materials easily. Not that big a deal compared to some, but it probably costs every science teacher (and thus every student) 5 or 10 minutes a day.

    Thumb up 3

  14. salinger

    Good thread – good comments.

    Of course we want our education policy written by a software engineer – I mean he’s a billionaire – he must know EVERYTHING right?

    Leave teaching to the teachers – assessment rubrics come and go – good instruction works no matter what the assessment artifact is.

    Thumb up 0

  15. salinger

    One more observation – I don’t think the concern re: high achievers that has been brought up in this thread is really an issue. High achievers will remain high achievers no matter the grading system.

    Thumb up 0

  16. pfluffy

    I have a 5th grader with fairly serious language disabilities so my opinion is somewhat skewed. I don’t really care if his report card has Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle stickers on it as long as he can read the material and pass the exam to go to the next grade and lather, rinse, repeat. No one will answer a simple question for me – what are his outcomes as an adult; not even my teacher husband. They just babble on about “strategies” while my son beats his head on his desk in frustration.

    Thankfully, my son is pulled out for ELA and there are three teachers in his regular classroom. All of the IEP kids are in the same class with the extra teachers. This will make the most sense to hist_ed. The teacher teaches the normal stuff and the extra teachers are there to assist the slower kids.

    In his school they still have letter grades but it is the “D” that is gone from the rubric (A, B, C, F). They seem to hand them out based on the work that is turned in. My son has a smaller workload because of how long it takes him to do what other kids can do, but it is graded just the same.

    It seems to be a pretty good setup for accommodating varying levels of ability. The “gifted” kids can be pulled out for extra classes, but they learn the basics with everyone else. I leave it to their very fortunate parents to worry about the efficacy of their educations. It is not my problem.

    Thumb up 0

  17. Seattle Outcast

    I don’t mind Bill Gates handing out cash for causes, I have a problem with Gates thinking he’s an expert on most topics just because he got rich by being a complete jerk to everyone he’s ever met.

    I’d rather he keep his cash going toward things more basic, like disease elimination, clean water, and maybe taking warlords out back and having them lynched by placing massive bounties on their heads.

    Thumb up 1

  18. hist_ed

    One more observation – I don’t think the concern re: high achievers that has been brought up in this thread is really an issue. High achievers will remain high achievers no matter the grading system.

    Yes almost all will get an A or 4 or whatever. But are we really pushing them? Last year we had an honor contract for students to get the honors designation. I had about 8 kids in my 8th grade block sign it first semester. 3 of them withdrew. One of my favorite little geniuses told me: “This isn’t honors, it’s a waste of time.” Next semester three kids signed up because their parents made them. Having kids with IQs of 75 and 80 in a group discussion with kids with IQs of 135 or 140 (or working together on projects-guess who does the lion’s share) isn’t going to challenge the high IQ kids.

    Thumb up 6

  19. salinger

    Yes almost all will get an A or 4 or whatever. But are we really pushing them?

    That’s a matter of curriculum – not grading scale. But I feel your pain.

    Thumb up 0