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Gainesville City Schools hopes new grading system motivates kids
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Gainesville City Schools is making a big change with grading this year.

Elementary school students won't receive letter grades, middle school students won't receive a grade below 50 percent and high school students won't receive zeros on any assignment.

It's a big step but it's long overdue, some say. Jamey Moore, director of standards and assessment, gave brochures and a sample first-grade report card to the school board to explain the changes.

"I'm going to start hugging on you because I'm so excited," school board member Maria Calkins said with a laugh.

School board officials talked about the changes for more than an hour at tonight's meeting.

The new report card will roll out to first through fifth grades, and it'll include descriptive feedback about performance in the class, rather than a "U" or "S" for unsatisfactory or satisfactory completion.

"The students will be given an example of good work for an assignment and levels of competency instead of giving back something meaningless such as a percentage with ‘Wonderful' written on the paper," Moore said. "Specifics will give the next steps to improve learning. It's a change in mind-set, with teachers charting progress along the way."

In a first-grade language arts class, for example, the report card will list specific goals each student should reach with reading. By using the new report card, teachers and parents can easily recognize areas where students should focus, Moore said.

"We want to be able to narrow the focus and go deeper into subjects instead of going wider," Moore said, "while still making certain we don't have gaps in teaching."

About a year ago, Moore and Superintendent Merrianne Dyer researched what would have the greatest effect on student achievement and found that grading practices can help with student motivation.

At the middle school and high school level, an additional period built into the day - the Enhancement Period - will allow students to make up assignments, re-test for low grades or push ahead by working on projects or silently reading.

"How do you motivate kids? You give them autonomy, choices and allow them to master concepts before slamming them with grades," Dyer said. "We're looking at a way to improve motivation on the cutting edge, and if we want to do one thing well to make the most difference for the students, this is it."

Moore met with leadership teams and teachers at each school to determine the best way to change grading. Instructional coaches at the elementary schools drafted the new report cards, and teachers approved the standards to be measured.

"The old way is very ambiguous," Moore said. "Your student received a letter grade for that class, but it doesn't give the finer details of where they're weak or strong."

Calkins clapped and smiled a few times but also asked several questions as parents sent her text messages about the changes.

Moore said parents will receive brochures that explain the report cards and will receive specific examples for how to help their children.

Under the new system for Gainesville Middle School and Gainesville High School, daily work will count as a smaller portion of the final grade than it did in the past. Teachers will put more focus on final projects, presentations and essays rather than multiple choice tests.

"We still have to conduct state and benchmark standardized testing, so we're not taking anything away but adding, such as creating a podcast, website or science lab," Moore said. "Students learn with different pacing and timing, and one student doesn't deserve a better grade for getting an assignment done more quickly."

The concept of mastering a subject applies to all students, not just those who need to replace failing grades. A middle or high school student can also replace a "B" assignment during the enhancement period.

"We show students what they need to do and keep allowing them to try it until they get it," Dyer said. "Coercion through bad grades makes them bitter and demotivated. In time, the student's mind-set changes because you take out the high risk of making a mistake and failing."