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VOL. 128 | NO. 190 | Monday, September 30, 2013

Grading System Reflects National Debate

By Bill Dries

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In the ongoing reformation of public education in Shelby County, the 2013-2014 school year has been one of milestones.

Whitney Elementary students are among those in the Achievement School District whose report cards will soon reflect the new standards-based letter-grading scale. The new system is being used in the Frayser elementary and middle schools that the ASD runs directly.

(Daily News/Bill Dries)

July 1 was the start of the first fiscal year for the unified school district. Aug. 5 was the start of the first school year. The first parent-teacher conferences were Sept. 19 with the first of four report cards for the first nine-week period going home on Oct. 16.

And some changes in the way the Achievement School District grades in the K-8 schools it runs directly in Frayser have tapped into a national discussion about including report cards and letter grades in the other changes underway in K-12 education.

The elementary and middle schools the district runs directly still use letter grades but they calculate an “A” as a score of 90-100 instead of the standard 93-100. A “B” is 71-89 instead of 85-92 and a “C” is 59-70 instead of 75-84.

But leaders of the state-run school district for the lowest-performing schools in the state argue that the change is more than a change in the scores. They say the letter grades correspond to whether students are meeting state Common Core standards for that time at that grade level.

“It is not easier to get an ‘A.’ It’s a lot harder to get an ‘A,’” said Ash Solar, executive director of the district.

He pointed to the changed criteria behind the familiar letter grades. “which means the grades that we report in our progress reports and report cards will reflect student achievement and learning as reflected in standardized tests to state standards and the broader ACT, SAT college readiness standards.”

“It’s a much more honest assessment,” said Nataki Gregory, head of the schools for the ASD. “We know how they perform against state standards.”

The original announcement of the change to the new letter grade standards in the direct-run ASD schools in Frayser included a range of 84-100 for an “A” and 70-83 for a “B.”

That’s the scale parents got in a Sept. 13 notice from the Achievement School District that was corrected this week by the district.

The Achievement School District used the conventional letter grade scale in its first year of operation, the 2012-2013 school year.

In the current school year, the letters remain but they too have a different meaning along with the different numerical score range. An “A” means advanced; a “B” proficient, and a “C” means “basic high” in terms of proficiency.

A “D” means the student is at basic proficiency but at a low level and an “F” means the student is “below basic.”

For K-8 schools, there is no single state standard for the scores that translate to letter grades. But that changes when students enter the ninth grade. There is a single letter grade standard for high schools set by the state.

The different letter grade scale in K-8 does not affect the statewide listing of how school systems and individual schools within them performed in terms of students who are proficient or advanced and students who are not proficient at their grade level. The list is based on how students performed on the Tennessee Comprehensive Achievement Program tests.

Standards based grading is a national education trend being debated perhaps not as prominently as Common Core standards and charter schools and education vouchers.

The discussion touches on what critics of the conventional letter grade system contend are subjective elements that are applied across subjects.

For instance, a student may be graded as answering 95 percent of the questions in a social studies test correctly for a letter grade of “A.” But in a biology course there are different standards that come with the sciences where the right and wrong answers are clearer.

In standards based grading, the goal is less subjectivity and the path to more objectivity is that the standards for a particular letter grade in a score range become more specific.

And the Common Core standards adopted by Tennessee and most of the other states are specific down to specific skills a student is to master or be proficient in at a certain point in the school year to move on to the next goals.

Critics of the new way of grading argue a student’s effort should be a factor in grading just as school districts can be rewarded for the growth they show in failing schools for moving more students toward proficiency and grade level achievement. They point to letter grades as an incentive for students, one of several other purposes for the conventional grading system.

Critics also contend the new way amounts to teaching to a test. Proponents counter that it is teaching to standards.

Middle schools in the Metro Nashville Schools system changed to standards based grades in the 2012-2013 school year. In addition to the rescaled overall letter grade standard, the report cards there come with an “effort code” and a numerical standards score for the middle schoolers.

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