Sumner district's middle schools will introduce standards-based grading in the 2011-2012 school year

The current school year may have ended, but middle school students and their families can already expect changes to the grading system next year.

Sumner School District will introduce standards-based grading on a trial basis for the 2011-2012 school year. Teachers at each of the district's three middle school campuses have been given the option to  adopt the new grading method; at the time of an interview with the team developing the standards-based grading protocol, 50 teachers had affirmed they would adopt it.

"One of the big things has been communicating with families our strategy for getting info out," said Leslie Lauretano. Lauretano is the elementary and middle school curriculum teacher on special assignment. She is working with Professional Development Specialist Loren Willson and Technology TOSA Tracy Davis to develop the standards-based grading system for middle schools.

What is standards-based grading, and how is it different from the schools' current system?

The district's middle schools currently use a cumulative grading system, which collects grades from student assignments over the course of an entire term and averages them out into a final grade. But that can lead to certain problems.

Suppose there are two math students, Bob and David.

Bob had difficulty understanding the formulas introduced at the beginning of his algebra course, and his first progress report didn't turn out so well: he received a 50 percent grade. In contrast, David grasped the concepts easily and received a glowing report: 100 percent.

Frustrated, Bob studied hard and sought help from his teacher. He learned the material and earned an amazing 100 percent on his final exam.

After his initial progress report, David decided he didn't need to study as hard in algebra. Over time, his comprehension and grades declined until his final exam earned a 50 percent score.

Under a cumulative grading system, Bob and David would receive the same grade—75 percent—despite their opposite trajectories. As they move on to a new term, Bob's hard work doesn't look as impressive and David's dropping performance doesn't look as bad, potentially going overlooked by his next teacher.

"A progress report under the standards-based system is a snapshot... of the time of the report," Lauretano said. "If the student is meeting expectations at the end of the term, that is what is shown on the report."

Now suppose there is a third student, Jill, whose ability to meet standards fluctuates throughout the term. Under cumulative grading, she too would have received a middling grade, and standards-based grading still presents a challenge in identifying the issue. But a teacher will be able to meet with Jill and her family before coming to a judgement as to whether she met standards.

The system will already be familiar to parents with middle school students who were elementary students in Sumner School District; district elementary schools have used standards-based grading since 2000. Each subject is broken down into three or four skill areas—English might be represented by Spelling, Reading Comprehension and Writing.

"Our middle school math system is smooshed together right now under the cumulative grading system," Davis said.

"(Math skill areas are) what we're hammering out right now," Lauretano said.

Skill areas are individually assessed against the standard using a numeric rank— "1" is below standard, "2" is slightly below standard, "3" meets standard and "4" exceeds standard.

"It's driven by the concept of mastery learning," Willson said. "The material is taught until the student meets the standard, not a system that tallies up the average of the points in the pot."

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