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West Jordan Journal

Teachers are changing your child’s grades: standards- based grading will soon replace letter-based grades

Oct 04, 2022 12:16PM ● By Jet Burnham

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Standards Based Grading

Parents can no longer expect their children to earn straight A’s because the letter grade system is being phased out in Jordan District schools.

“Around the country, there's a shift in how we grade students and it's really looking at the standard and their progress towards mastery, rather than a percentage that gives you a grade,” said Todd Theobald, administrator on special assignment in the Teaching and Learning Department at Jordan District. “It reflects the shift that has already taken place in instruction, of really focusing on standards in a very deep way, not just learning and grading and telling people how much homework they turned in and just this general percentage on the test, but really digging into what is that skill asking for.”

Letter-based grades are being replaced with standards-based grading, which uses a 1–4 scale to identify a student’s progress toward proficiency in a skill.

While SBG has been implemented at the secondary school level, the change-over is in the early stages at the elementary level in Jordan District. Six elementary schools are piloting SBG this year: Oak Leaf, Mountain Shadows and Riverside in West Jordan; Bastian in Herriman; and Jordan Ridge and Daybreak Elementary in South Jordan. Participants meet frequently to troubleshoot and to share ideas about implementation.

“This is a true pilot where there's a lot of feedback going back and forth between the district and the schools,” Riverside Principal Dr. Mike Trimmell said.

The pilot schools spent years laying a lot of groundwork to be able to support the new grading system. Several other schools have adopted some aspects of SBG and will be ready for full implementation next year. Theobald expects every elementary school to be changed over to SBG in the next several years.

Parent buy-in

Theobald said it is often difficult to make a change to an education system because parents have expectations for their child’s school experience based on their own, but education is moving forward and parents’ support is needed.

“The biggest push is helping parents understand that we're really helping them see where students are relative to these specific skills and trying to get away from that historical context of what a grade means,” Theobald said. “And that's a big challenge. It's really hard for everyone that has a stake in education to move away from what an A has meant for hundreds of years.”

Pilot school administrators and teachers have invested time and resources to educate parents about the benefits of SBG through newsletters, Back to School nights and informative videos.

“We want them to be our partners and we don't want there to be any misunderstanding or misconception, so we'll work with them,” Theobald said. “We're just going to help them ease into it so that we do the best thing for kids and it's always best when we have parents on board.”


What do grades mean?          

The biggest hurdle has been changing peoples’ mindset of what a grade is. Theobald said the problem with letter grades is they don’t necessarily reflect what a student knows. They reflect that an assignment was turned in, but the complexity of the assignment can vary from teacher to teacher and what the student actually learned from it is not accurately measured.

            On the SBG scale, students receive a number grade.

1- below proficient

2- approaching proficient

3- proficient

4- highly proficient

The goal is for students to earn a 3 for each grade level standard by the end of the year, which means the student is independently proficient in the skills needed to progress to the next grade. Parents must adjust to seeing 1s and 2s on their child’s early progress reports, said Trimmell.

“At eight weeks into school, most children should be at around a 2,” he said. “This is a year long standard. They're right where they're supposed to be at this point in the school year.”

With the SBG grading system, parents and students can access accurate data of how their student is doing at any time. Pilot schools are using an adapted format on Skyward to record students’ progress. Teachers also compile an “evidence of learning” folder, portfolio or data notebook for each child containing their most recent schoolwork and assessments.

Students at Oak Leaf and Riverside take their data notebooks home once a month so parents can see their work and a current list of skills within a standard, called a learning scale or vision for growth, which their child has passed off or is working on.

“In the data notebook, they will see the actual assessments themselves so they can see where their child is at and can see what they're missing really, really clearly,” Riverside teacher Lydia Theobald[1]  said.

At Oak Leaf Elementary, Principal Ronna Hoffman said students will lead parent teacher conferences, using their data notebooks as evidence for their grades.

“The child will be able to explain to the parents, ‘Here's where I am and this is why and this is what I need to do for my next step,’” she said. “It's going to empower our students, which is the most important thing.”

 Parent teacher conferences will be held at midterm, to provide an opportunity for parents and teachers to discuss a student’s progress toward mastery and how they can help them continue to improve over the following weeks before a report card is generated.

“The intention is to keep those parent teacher conferences really focused on that celebration of progress and talking about where they are in the journey and what can we do to support this kid,” Todd[2]  Theobald said. “We want to give really accurate information to parents so that they know how their kids are doing relative to the standards that we selected. These are really important skills that they need to be successful in the coming years of their education. And even though that may come with a little bit of a pain point for parents, because they want their kids to be at the top of the scale, we just want to make sure that it represents a real, accurate measure of how they're doing. So then from there, we can pinpoint instruction and really make sure that we're meeting the needs of all these kids.”

Instead of quarterly report cards, SBG schools will generate two report cards each year, one at the end of each semester. The report cards will be more accurate, reflecting a student’s most recent scores, Hoffman said.

“It's not a bunch of grades that you've averaged over the grading period,” she said. “It is, as of right now, this is where your child is. And so kids who take longer but get it in the end, they don't have those lower grades that we're averaging in. If they've got it, they’ve got it.”

Students who have learned the skill and are ready for the next step earn a 4.

“The majority of kids should fall within the three to one,” Theobald said. “The four is really for those kids who, for maybe one subject or one standard, are exceeding the standard. We need to design our curriculum to support a kid that's already totally mastered that skill and provide the next step, that enrichment, that push for these kids that are already there.”

He said parents need to abandon the idea that their kids should never get anything less than an A or the top of the scale.

“We just need them to look at where their child is at, celebrate the growth that they've made, and then keep moving forward,” he said. “And that's what our teachers are committed to.”


Teacher buy-in

Hoffman, who has been on the district’s report card committee for years, has been a proponent of the transition to SBG. She had already started implementing aspects of SBG when she was principal at Riverside Elementary, so the staff was prepared to participate in the pilot.

As the principal at Oak Leaf Elementary, which opened this fall, Hoffman had the opportunity to select her staff from among teachers who were open to working with the new grading system.

“I needed teachers who were on board to do standards-based grading, which is a different mindset than what we've done before and so there's a lot of work involved in that. I hired people who have that mindset because it really is the best for kids,” she said.

Transitioning to a new grading system has meant a lot of work for teachers.

“These teachers are really dedicated to breaking down those standards and skills, mapping out that learning journey, using good assessment that'll pinpoint exactly where the kid is at, and then being able to apply the right intervention or instruction to move them to the next step and then the next step and the next step,” Theobald said. He said feedback from teachers is that they are seeing benefits that justify the extra work and that they are feeling more professional and empowered with more confidence

Lydia Theobald, who teaches second grade (and is not related to Todd Theobald), started her teaching career at Riverside Elementary three years ago, when they were just beginning to transition to SBG. She said breaking down standards for SBG learning scales helped her focus her lesson plans to more effectively teach the standards. Her grade level team of teachers collaborated to establish what students need to do to progress from a 1 to a 2 and a 2 to a 3, so that grading is consistent no matter which teacher a child has.

She likes SBG because it makes the learning growth clear to parents, students and teachers. She said it empowers students and is better for their self-esteem.

“Students are learning at the rate that they're learning and we're excited for them—there's no pressure to be anywhere,” she said. “It feels like it's kind of taking the shame out of it, where they’re not trying to get to the highest grade or to get all the points they can get. They see their growth on a continuum and they're excited about making progress.”

She said even if a student is scoring below proficiency, because the standards are broken down into small steps, they are still able to track growth.

“We're trying to express to students that it's about growth, it's about learning, it's not about ‘you have to be here,’” Trimmell said. “Wherever you started, we want to see growth, a year's worth of growth or more.”

Todd Theobald believes SBG is what is best for students, teachers and parents.

“We're going to raise our achievement scores,” he said. “We're going to have kids that are better prepared for middle school, high school and then college. It can be really amazing. It's slow and steady work, but we're committed to it.”