For years, parents across the country have asked teachers and administrators what an A grade really means.
Now, area schools are trying to better answer that question by changing grading practices.
“This conversation really isn’t about grading,” said Kristen Williams, who is in her first year as principal of Woodbrook Elementary. “It’s about how we give parents and students feedback about their progress. But we’re used to that being grades. That’s was our experience in school. It’s been the history of education forever and ever.”
Changing how students are graded is aimed at making sure an A — or any other grade — means the same in every class and giving students and their parents more clarity about academic achievement.
Content masteryWork in Albemarle County elementary schools, a local private school and Charlottesville High School offer concrete examples of what shaking up grading practices looks like and how it helps students. Across the board, schools are focusing more on whether students have mastered a skill or content area rather than how they fared on a particular test.
“[It’s] the idea that I want the grade that I give a student or that a student earns in my class to be a reflection of their mastery of content and not the behaviors that they exhibit in my class,” said Julia Robbins, a seventh-grade math teacher at St. Anne’s-Belfield School.
Albemarle County and Charlottesville teachers attended a summer professional development session to kick off a broader rethink of how students are graded. A group of county teachers are trying out new approaches to grading and will report back how they went to help division officials come up with the next steps.
Since then, Albemarle County Public Schools rolled out a new language arts report card at its elementary schools and eliminated letter grades for third through fifth grades.
At St. Anne’s, middle school math teachers are focused on content mastery.
Similarly, several math classes at Charlottesville High School has embraced standards-based grading for years and more teachers are interested in adopting that approach.
“With standards, it’s not right or wrong,” said Stacey Heltz, an assistant principal at Charlottesville High School. “[A student] might’ve gotten the final answer wrong, but as a teacher, I can see that the student really gets the concept and they might’ve made a calculation error.”
Students in math classes at CHS still receive a letter grade; however, what that grade entails is clearer, she said.
“You can say, oh I got an A, but what does that A mean? An A in a standards-based class means I’ve mastered 88% of the content or more,” she said.
Robbins, at St. Anne’s, wanted to try something new after reading Joe Feldman’s 2018 book “Grading for Equity.”
So, she switched up her class and honed in on making sure the grades reflected what students knew.
Students now earn anywhere from a 5 to a 10 on tests or quizzes. She allows retakes after students do a self-reflection and puts the highest score in the gradebook.
“For some kids, it takes them longer to get there and in my class, that’s OK,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you are there in October or there in December. I want you to get there. So I don’t penalize kids for not getting there in whatever timeline that I set.”
She’s in the second year of this new approach. Other middle school math teachers at St. Anne’s are embracing it as well.
Terry Lippmann, an eighth-grade teacher at St. Anne’s, is working with Robbins’ former students this school year and has noticed a difference. They want to know how to show they understand the material and not just how to raise their grade, he said.
“It’s a big change when students are thinking about learning, instead of about grades,” he said.
For Robbins and other teachers who have taken this approach, a key benefit is that students know where they stand and what they need to do to advance.
More equitable grading means not counting homework, class participation or other behaviors, teachers said.
“As a language teacher for years, I always graded participation, but I realized all of the bias that came in when I attempted to grade participation,” said Beth Miller, associate head of school for academics at St. Anne’s, who made similar changes in her Spanish class.
Heltz, with CHS, said standards-based grading is a mindset shift and levels the playing field for students.
“In a standards-based class, the homework piece is not really factored into that grade,” she said. “ … But their grade in a regular classroom or on a traditional grading scale might be low because they don’t access or because they might be taking care of their siblings. So their grade is negatively impacted, not because they don’t understand but because they didn’t play the game of school.”
Additionally, students have more control of their learning as they can focus on the standards they need more help on rather than the concepts they’ve mastered.
Williams, at Woodbrook, said the new elementary student report card has changed conversations among teachers, students and parents.
“The most powerful thing for me was seeing those parents bring this to the meetings and asking clarifying questions for really great reasons,” she said. “That led to us learning more about their child, led to them learning more about their child and what this meant.”
Overhauling the language arts report card has been in the works for years and was piloted at Stone-Robinson last year when Williams was principal there. Williams said the old report card didn’t align with what teachers were teaching.
On a selection of reading and writing standards, students are given a 1, 2 or 3, where a 1 means they are below the standard and 3 means they have met it.
Williams said Woodbrook teachers have found that the new report card has helped students set goals beyond wanting to get an A.
The report card shows parents and students where their reading skills fall on a continuum, helps track growth over the school year and how those skills compare to where students in their grade should be.
“It’s what [parents] want to know,” Williams said. “It’s not good or bad … This where they are and that’s OK. And we’re working with your child on their strengths to show growth. Kids develop at so many different rates.”
For teachers, Williams said the new report card just makes more sense, and the division is looking at expanding the project. A new math report card is being piloted this year at Hollymead, Williams said.
“It totally applies to what they are already doing with their kids,” she said.
Students in third through fifth grades earn letter grades on assignments but not for each quarter.
“The important thing too that kids still understand what it means to work hard and earn that letter grade, and [the report card] is really a great record to show that you did work and you made growth,” she said.