A local school has seen improvements in standardized test scores after implementing what’s been a controversial grading method in other parts of the country.
At Gainesville Middle School, the lowest grade a student can get is a 50. The change in grading policy was originally implemented in the 2009-10 school year.
“Three years ago, we had a nationally renowned expert (University of Kentucky professor Thomas Guskey) come and work with us on grading practices,” Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer explained. “As a result, (the middle school) currently uses the 50 as the lowest grade, and requires students to do their work over if they fail an assignment.”
Bottoming out at 50 is supposed to encourage self-assessment among students, with the point being students ultimately learn more by examining their grades and, if failing, redoing some of the work.
The days of just taking the average of multiple grades for a final score are over.
“For teachers who give grades and then simply average them together for the final grade, they are hurting both the student and themselves,” Dyer said. “First, if the student has a slow start in understanding and has low grades, they lose motivation to keep working.
“Second, averaging grades together doesn’t demonstrate how much the student grew from start to finish,” she added.
She explained that students who may not immediately understand the content at the beginning of the school year are much less demoralized when working from a 50 baseline.
“From a numbers standpoint, a zero will impact your grade much more severely than a 50 would,” Director of Learning Supports Jarod Anderson said. “The rationale is failing is still failing. But from a psychological standpoint, I guess it would ... make an impact on the student.”
To that point, there’s also some flexibility in how students can show they’re learning and retaining classroom material. Dyer said suggestions from the state-based teacher evaluations say to use multiple methods, like different versions of one test to grade students.
It can be a tough mindset change for teachers, who may think they’re not being fair if they allow students to be graded in different ways.
“But if a kid’s struggling or maybe their English is not as strong, there’s more than one way to show that they know (the content),” Dyer said. “It’s a lot of shifts in teacher thinking.”
The grading-policy change isn’t all about the grades on the report card, though. The focus that is now placed on self-assessment, and making students redo the work to show they have a grasp on the content, has led to improvements in standardized test results, like those on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.
The results are there for the middle school as far as standardized testing goes.
For example, in 2010 only 72 percent of all middle school students were meeting or exceeding state standards in math. In 2013, that number was at 81 percent.
The most significant example is a 12 percent change in social studies scores between 2010 and last school year; in 2010, 67 percent met or exceeded state standards in that subject. That increased to 79 percent in 2013.
“The achievement data from the past four years shows that the administrators, leadership team, teachers and parents at Gainesville Middle School are clearly implementing strategies that are making the difference in student success,” said Jamey Moore, director of curriculum and instruction. “The data is phenomenal. Every subgroup that the state measures has shown substantial growth during the past four years.
“The number of students exceeding standards has also increased every year in all subjects from 2010 through 2013,” Moore added. “All students are being more successful.”
There are still some ups and downs, particularly in the Hispanic and English-learning populations who have seen some decreases in their standardized test scores since 2010, though all are up from the original 2010 scores.
Gainesville Middle School principal Ken Martin said those populations are where school leaders are focusing their attention.
“Part of that is through content vocabulary, and trying to immerse them into more informational text,” he said. “Sometimes it seems to be more of the content vocabulary to be an area that’s lacking.”
Martin said he thinks while the grading policy has some effect on testing improvements, the momentum behind the improvements comes from the mentality behind the student-teacher relationship.
“(Students) see that the teachers care about them but are also trying to empower them,” he said. “The students are in control of their grades and of the choices they make.”
Last year, Martin coined the PRIDE initiative, which stands for Putting Relationships In Daily Education.
“I think our teachers have truly embraced in showing that interest (in their students),” he said.
The test score improvements have led to other schools in the city system to look at some of Gainesville Middle’s practices; for example, while Gainesville High School still uses zero as the lowest grade, students can do failing work over.
“A recent examination of data ... showed that Gainesville Middle is getting better performance growth, so there has been a lot of discussion among teachers,” Dyer said. “Regardless of whether or not you use a 50 or a zero, since we are now focused on student growth, teachers and schools have to examine how they assign grades and if it encourages (student) growth.”
Dyer said that at the end of the day, grades should only have one intent.
“Grades are for reporting to parents and students how they’re doing; that’s all they are,” she said, quoting from professor Thomas Guskey. “We tend to use them for so many other things. We tend to use them as the hammer. We tend to use them as a consequence for behavior rather than what they know.”