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Grading the grades: A look at Gainesville school's new system
0808Jamey Moore
Jamey Moore

The Times has been reporting some of the important grading changes that Gainesville City schools is implementing for 2010-2011. These include the addition of an enhancement period at GMS and GHS, a new grading scale at GMS, and standards based report cards at the elementary schools.

The grading changes being implemented by the system should be viewed as results of a more important shift that has occurred in our purpose: we want our students to be more motivated to learn by clearly understanding the learning for which they are responsible and knowing that they will have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

We are making certain that we are not so focused on covering material for multiple-choice testing that our primary purpose is being lost in the shuffle. It has been very interesting for me during the past year to listen to the discussions students, parents, teachers and administrators have had about the changes each school has decided to implement.

I have been asked in this article to give my perspective on a few of the questions and statements that have come to the surface through our dialogue.

Based on the questions I have heard, the most prevalent misconception about the changes is that somehow our purpose is to take away our students' responsibility for success or failure. On the contrary, the accountability every student faces to pass state tests, to graduate from high school, and to do well on the SAT/ACT remains unchanged in our equation.

The piece we have chosen to adjust is in the time that we have to prepare them for these measures of accountability. We want our students to have a safe place to practice with guided instruction and multiple opportunities to succeed.

Unfortunately, I have heard people say that the real world does not offer second opportunities or time to practice. I disagree.

What about the time spent by pilots in flight simulators? Or the time surgeons spend perfecting procedures on cadavers? Architects build scale models and run countless tests on them prior to attempting the full-scale project. These professions have certainly all created environments where they can safely master skills before they are held accountable for success. Our students deserve the same opportunity.

Teachers at GMS and GHS met last year and during the summer months to determine the best way to give our students the time they need to succeed. They decided to implement an enhancement period. The enhancement period will mean different things for differing student needs.

Many students will have the opportunity to use this time to enrich and accelerate learning at their own pace in areas of interest. Some students will use this time to complete work that would have been recorded as a zero.

Many of the students that have given up in school systems across our nation are more comfortable accepting the zero than they are at being faced with a no-excuses approach that requires them to complete assignments.

Gainesville High has not removed zeroes from their grading scale; instead, they have chosen to expect all students to complete assignments, and they have created the support during the school day to help them do it. If a student at GHS continues to ignore the opportunities the support provides, they will receive a zero on assignments that are not completed.

Gainesville Middle School's teacher leadership team decided to include an enhancement period similar to the high school, but they also decided to make an important change to their grading scale. The traditional zero to 100percent scale has a tragic flaw.

It is skewed so heavily towards failure that a student earning a zero needs to have nine perfect grades to overcome the deficit created. Imagine a reversed scale.

If 70 percent of the scale were reserved for excellence, what effect would a single grade of 100 earned have on the overall grade? GMS is moving in the direction that our colleges and universities have chosen, in essence, a four-point scale.

Fifty to 69 percent will still translate into a failing grade. Seventy to 100 will still correspond to grades of C, B, and A in 10-point increments. What the middle school has done is to remove the undue influence that low grades like zeroes have played in defeating students unfairly. We want a safe place to practice all year long prior to the accountability of benchmarks, exams, and state tests.

I have heard people say giving students a 50 for incomplete assignments is just a ploy to make them feel good. That is tantamount to saying college grades of zero on the four-point scale are "feel good" grades. We are just choosing to call our baseline of zero "50 percent" because our students, parents and teachers are accustomed to the current numbers.

Our elementary schools will be using a report card based on the state standards that are being taught in each class with clear descriptions of achievement.

Forsyth County and our own Fair Street IB World School have already been using standards-based report cards. The question I have heard about the new report card concerns the teacher's ability to manage the increased number of items being reported.

Our five elementary schools are already focused on the standards and each child's progress, so the report card is a logical extension of work that is already being done by the teachers. Our purpose for the report card is to give parents a balanced picture of their student's learning.

Ultimately, we want to remove flawed grading practices as a barrier to student success while creating a more accurate picture of student learning for parents. We want students to do the challenging work of learning throughout the school year. We want to create relevant environments with access to the technology they need and to challenge them with problems that require innovation and depth of reasoning to solve.

Most of the people reading this article grew up in schools that only expected a small segment of the population to achieve excellence. Many of us remember getting upset with the few achievers that were ruining the curve for the rest of us. The exclusivity of the "normal curve" does not align with our vision for the future.

We know our students are capable of greatness, and we are choosing to get our practices out of their way. In essence, what we have learned about grading does not make what we have done wrong; it just makes what we are going to do better.