Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Education movement emphasizes mastery of a subject, not homework

ST. LOUIS — The proud parents who attended Lincoln Elementary's honor roll assemblies years ago assumed the school was a shining example of academic achievement.

Kids by the dozens lined up to be celebrated for earning grades that put them on the honor roll.

Then the school in St. Charles got state test results.

Most of the students failed, casting doubt on the school's success and challenging the validity of many of its students' glowing report cards. Administrators knew they had a problem.

What they did next upended everything parents, teachers and students thought they knew about grading.

St. Charles joined a national movement that — sometimes amid a formidable backlash — is rebuilding how a child's performance in a class or a course is calculated.

It's a switch that seeks to move away from rewarding students merely for completing work and instead bases grades on mastery of a subject.

Swept away are points for finished homework assignments or good behavior and class participation. Instead, grades are more heavily based on exam results and the quality of work.

"There are kids that are good at playing the game of school," said Julie Williams, principal of Lincoln Elementary, which began to overhaul its grading along with other St. Charles elementary schools in 2008. "If you don't ever do well on tests but you raise your hand every time, those kids can score well in the traditional system. But when they are tested on state tests, it exposes the weaknesses."

St. Louis-area school districts such as Rockwood, Parkway and Pattonville also have tried new ways of looking at grades. The systems used by the districts vary, but the ideas have all evolved from what's called standards-based grading. And some of the details have sparked opposition.

Critics say the approach may sound good as a concept. Who doesn't think grades should be based on what kids are actually learning?

But what that means in the classroom or at home is another matter, they say.

Take, for example, the de-emphasis on homework in a student's final grade for a subject.

Under standards-based grading, students face no penalty — pointwise — for failing to turn in homework. Instead, homework is viewed as simply a tool to help them master a subject.

There are no zeros. Moreover, students can redo assignments multiple times and even retake tests.

The changes — which run counter to how school has functioned for generations — have triggered fears from parents who worry that their kids will simply slack off.

Some Rockwood teachers say the concept isn't working in the schools that have adopted it.

Just this month, a Lafayette High School teacher took her criticism public. And when new grading policies were explained to middle school parents this year, jaws dropped.

"It was 45 minutes of gnashing of teeth," said Paul Bozdech, a parent at Rockwood's LaSalle Springs Middle School. "The general mood of the room was, 'This isn't how I had it growing up.' "

• • •

New approaches to traditional grading have picked up steam in the past 15 years, an era of accountability for teachers and schools that has more recently focused on individual student growth in learning.

Schools also have a new set of standards to measure that growth by. In the past few years, nearly all states also have adopted the Common Core State Standards, an outline of what a child should know and be able to do in each grade.

Such a shift has introduced discrepancies such as the one at Lincoln Elementary, with results of standardized testing seeming to be at odds with how student performance is reflected in report cards.

That has led educators to question what the grades they were giving were really saying about what a student knew.

And there are other troubling discrepancies, such as straight-A students in high school not performing as well on the ACT or being forced to take remedial courses in college.

In Missouri, about 36 percent of high school graduates who enter a public college or university must take at least one remedial course. Nationally, only 26 percent of high school seniors met college benchmarks in four subjects this year, according to ACT data.

"High school is free; if you fail in college, you have to pay," said Ken O'Connor, a former teacher turned author and consultant known as "The Grade Doctor." "We don't do kids any favors when we inflate their grades because at some point, they are going to fall on their face."

At the heart of standards-based grading is the thought that students should be awarded grades for demonstrating that they have mastered a subject — not for the work they completed along the way.

Advocates of the idea say traditional grading can mask academic failure. For example, a student might score no better than a D when tested in math. But because traditional grading awards points for handing in math homework, that student may earn a C or better in the class.

"The learning is what's important. It's not just the 'check off' of getting the grade in the grade book," said Karen Hargadine, executive director of pre-K and elementary education for the Rockwood School District, which has been phasing in the standards-based model.

Under the new grading approach, the focus on mastering a subject is so important that students are given new latitudes.

For example, if they bomb on a test, they can retake at least that portion of it. The same thing goes for other assignments, which, depending on the school, could be resubmitted for a better grade.

And it's on those points that some parents such as Bozdech disagree with what they view as a lack of real penalties or immediate consequences.

"That's not real life," he said.

• • •

When Ethan Dobbs heard his Algebra I teacher at Parkway North High School say that students would be able to retake portions of tests, he almost couldn't believe what he was hearing.

"I realized immediately it was going to be a little bit different," he said.

Homework also wasn't factored into a final grade. Students who had taken the class the year before were jealous — it seemed as if the younger kids had it easier than they did.

And while some kids "kind of abused" the homework policy, Dobbs said most students got the idea that if they didn't do the work, they probably weren't going to know what they were doing on the test. Teachers could also give poor "citizenship" grades, separate from academic marks.

"There's always a repercussion in some way," said Dobbs, now a junior.

Kevin Beckner, Parkway's coordinator of student assessment, says it's not about educators chasing a fad.

"We have a culture of points, percents and letters," Beckner said. "Just doing what you were told, doing your homework, got you points, helped your grade. Those things are life skills that are really important, but we don't want to report them in exactly the same way as learning."

For teachers, the shift away from traditional classroom grading can be scary.

Katie Nease gradually began to make changes in her middle school classroom in Rockwood over 10 years after the district began to discuss standards-based grading. She initially was concerned that students were not going to do the work she knew they needed.

Not counting homework and not marking zeros were the most frightening changes but had the most payoff, she said.

"Once I made that shift, it was remarkable the changes I saw in the classroom," said Nease, now a social studies content facilitator in Rockwood. "For some students, getting a zero was a pass out. This sends a message that your learning is important."

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