Policy Project Draft: Promoting Transparent Middle School Grading Policies for Equitable Academic Outcomes
California State University, Bakersfield
The instructional core is the intersection involving the student, the content, and the teacher. Elmore states that the instructional core must anchor any school or district level instructional improvement practice to create effective change. (p. 22). Furthermore, changes are often difficult to facilitate and our biggest problems are rooted deep within institutional structures. These structures are often taken for granted and require dialogue, assessment, and feedback for effective change to take place. Absent proper evaluation, any policy or program has the potential to become what Moon, Butcher, & Bird call “sinister caricatures” of policies and practices gone wrong (p. 39).
This policy paper is centered around the grading policy of the Bakersfield City School District (BCSD). Currently, BCSD does not have a uniform grading method. According to BCSD School Board policy f. BP 605.7 – Pupil Records, the superintendent has the authority to establish and appraise a regular uniform grading/evaluation system. Through an investigation of two middle schools and district leadership meetings, it is evident that grading is often a school site and school department decision. This policy paper is meant to explore specific policies that: raise student achievement, are replicable, and promote equality for all learners.
BCSD is the largest elementary school district in California. Any changes made to policy that affects the instructional core will have a direct influence on 30,000 students and 1,453 teachers across 42 school sites. 88% of the students are considered to be socioeconomically disadvantaged and 33% are English Language Learners. According to the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium (2016) 21% of students are proficient in grade level mathematics and 31 are proficient in grade level language arts.
Middle school grades are a key indicator for success in high school and later success in college (Allensworth, Gwynne, Moore, & de la Torre, 2014). College readiness begins at the middle school level, as does failure and high school dropout rates. According to Allensworth et al. students with F’s at the middle school level are more likely to fail in high school and later drop out.
The research on grades is also clear that lower socioeconomic and minority students earn and receive lower grades than more affluent or Caucasian and Asian students (Rauschenberg, 2014). Within lower socioeconomic and minority groups there is also a disparity in achievement, for example female language learners at the 12th grade level have significantly higher grades than males, but are outperformed outside of their demographic. Rauschenberg states that these grading differences are expressed more clearly in student characteristics, rather than district or school characteristics.
One of the new measures of achievement in education is standards based grading. Standards based grading eschews traditional letter grading based on individual assignments for grades based on individual standards and substandards. A traditional A-F grading scale is based on time and work provided by teachers. A standards based grading scale does not rely on time. For example, if a student does not learn a standard until the end of the school year, they are not penalized but rather rewarded for this achievement. Townsley and Varga (2018) found that grades remained unchanged when a system transitioned to standards based grading and ACT scores were lower. The researchers reasoned that exam scores dropped because the students became accustomed to taking exams multiple times, however, they did not specifically test or control for this variable.
Teacher perceptions are crucial in grading practices. Link (2018) found a relationship between teachers’ perceptions of grading practices such as behavior and grades, relation to grade level, district, and training (p. 62). This relationship is worrisome for education because it shows that less prepared teachers are more likely to factor behavior into grades, which can be a poor and discriminatory practice. This is an issue directly affecting Bakersfield City School District where 33% of teachers have been teaching for less than five years, and 10% of teachers on an emergency credential (Bakersfield City School District SARC, 2016).
Even as underprepared teachers enter the field of education, universities are researching the implementation of standards based grading within preservice teacher courses. The applicability of standards based grading extends beyond middle school and into the university through improved “triangulation of assessment, curriculum, and instruction” (p. 23). More novel grading practices such as Fuzzy Theory, based on computer science principles, have also demonstrated increased user friendliness for both teachers and students in live and online settings (Rankovic, 2010).
Changing to different system of grading requires a shift in mindset and practices for teachers and students. Kunnatch (2017) writes “the research finds that teachers must create grades with a meaning that is transparent and can be communicated to students and parents (p. 54).” Grading should not be a construct created by the teacher, school, or district, but a form of feedback that is easily understood by students. This type of shift in grading invariably requires professional development and alignment of administrative practices and technology software used to manage grades..
In order for grading policy changes to be efficient, schools and institutions must use standardized methods regardless of the system (Christie, Grainger, Dahlgren, Call, & Heck, 2015). The strength of systemic changes in grading policy lies in the uniformity of its users and the ability for users to use established protocols for their own individual purposes. Successful transition into a grading policy also requires the new policy to be more efficient for its users. According to Potts (2012), students will readily accept a new system if: “grading was less stressful for students, improved student writing skills, and less time consuming” (p. 29).
Grading policy efficiency can also include the use of improved methods of peer collaboration using technology. Heng, Robinson, and Park (2014) studied the reliability, validity, and perceived effects of students in massive open online courses (MOOCs). Reviewing 1,825 assignments within a single course the researchers found “students believe grading is fair and beneficial, and peer-grading is well-received.” Furthermore, the authors concluded that peer grading “tends to be more valid than self-grading (p. 11).”
The efficiency of any new grading system also depend on the ability of grading scales to transfer to standard grading scales. At the university level, one such model is the European Credit Transfer and Accumulation System (ECTS) which operates within the European Union (Lieponiene & Kulvietiene (2011). This ability to transfer grades across scales is not only a strength, but a requirement because the primary goal of many school districts is college and career readiness. Colleges and universities operate on traditional grading scales with acceptance processes based on those same traditional grades.
The Bakersfield City School District (BCSD) superintendent has the ability to unilaterally create uniform grading policy through BCSD School Board policy f. BP 605.7. BCSDt has 1,453 teachers making the political reality of a grade reform a potential for conflict with the Bakersfield Elementary Teachers Association. Such a major reform would exhaust administrative and board bargaining capital that it would need to be part of a larger movement within the district.
To create the necessary conditions where teachers embrace grading changes, cultural shifts must occur. Standards based grading must also include a shift towards alternative assignments, a renewed focus on student levels and ability, and a new focus on student motivation (Isnawati, 2017). Any major shift will require large amounts of funding for professional development. The necessary hardware and technology infrastructure is currently in place to support a standards based shift (Twyman, 2014). Most of the technology such as laptops, wifi and network connectivity, and staff development already began under the previous superintendent Dr. Robert Arias.
Local school districts in the San Joaquin Valley have shifted their entire grading policy away from traditional A-F grades (Ash, 2012). Lindsay Unified School District, about 50 minutes north of Bakersfield, began a transition into a standards based system in 2009-2010. The standards based grading came along with other reforms ushered in by Superintendent Tom Rooney, which included: removing the middle school and creating neighborhood schools, creating new school district positions, and focusing on student-driven learning.
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