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With eye on equity, Albemarle division moves forward on grading policy changes

After several years of surveys, training and planning, the Albemarle County school division is ready to take the next step in its plan to rethink grading practices.

That step is enacting a new grading policy that serves essentially as a statement of beliefs and that will guide efforts to craft specific regulations that could include changing the grading scale or eliminating zeros in the gradebook. The changes could take effect as soon as next school year.

“Initially, we designed the policy to be a philosophical framework for how we should think about grading,” said Natalie Farrell, a lead coach for mathematics. “They should be based on accuracy, consistency and they should support student learning. Those are our beliefs as a division, so getting that policy on paper is step one for us.”

Farrell, Jay Thomas, the division’s director of secondary education, and other staff members presented the new policy to the School Board on Thursday. The board is expected to approve it at its meeting Sept. 24.

“Regardless of the virus, virtual or anything that’s going on, there’s really nothing that should be stopping us from continuing to be progressive as a division, especially when it comes to something as important as grading,” Thomas said in an interview before the board meeting.

Changing grading practices in the division has been a priority for schools Superintendent Matt Haas, who has cited inconsistencies across schools as an obstacle to closing achievement gaps because students don’t really know what they have or haven’t learned, and how their learning is measured varies at different schools.

A survey of teachers in spring 2018 found inconsistency across the division in late work policies and other grading practices.

“If you really want to close gaps and make things equitable, you’ve got to start addressing these inequalities in our schools, and grading is a big one,” Thomas said in an interview before the board meeting.

During the meeting, board members were pleased with the policy and didn’t ask many questions.

“It’s a very real thing that affects a lot of students when your grades are not based on your content knowledge necessarily but the preparation or what you can bring in,” board member Katrina Callsen said. “So I’m very appreciative of the work. I’m excited to see us at this level of consistency across our grades in grading.”

This past school year, a group of about 215 teachers from the division’s secondary schools led efforts to experiment with grading and report back.

Key changes could include separating student achievement from behavior, such as late work or tardiness, and placing a greater emphasis on recent student work so students aren’t penalized for what they didn’t know at the beginning of a school year.

The teachers group also participated in summer professional development to prepare them for the experimentation.

Farrell said the spring closure, when the division suspended grading, helped to propel the effort.

“Teachers had the opportunity in the spring to try some different things when it came to motivating kids and engaging kids,” she said, adding that the focus shifted to what makes students want to do work without the motivation of grades.

“So that changes your practice,” she said. “You have to find something that’s interesting for kids and that kids really want to do. They want to do it for themselves, but also for you as the teacher, right.”

Thomas said that last year showed that changing grading practices will be a big challenge.

“But for many others, this is a welcome opportunity that they’ve wanted to see come for years,” he said.

Thomas said changing grading ties into the division’s anti-racism policy, which calls on staff to ensure that each student can be successful.

“This is one of those inequalities — grading — that we know happens systemically nationwide, and we’re going to tackle it and it’s going to be hard and we have a lot of staff members who are excited about that and want to get behind that,” he said. “I think that’s probably the most exciting piece that I’ve seen so far through these cohorts.”

As teachers have altered practices in their classrooms, their efforts have started to spread as others see the results, Thomas said.

“You’re seeing mindsets change in teachers,” he said. “In students, you are seeing achievement and excitement. It’s all intertwined.”

The division also worked with grading experts such as Ken O’Connor, an educational consultant who talked with families last summer, to help train the teachers and inform the broader reform effort.

As part of the policy, the division outlines guiding practices, including how grades should be accurate and support student learning.

Accuracy means that grades should align to the standards for student learning, accurately describe student achievement, be impartial and fair and be separated from work habits, among other provisions, per the policy.

Meanwhile, grades that are supportive of student learning would reflect students’ different rates of learning, encourage students to take an active role in setting goals and adjust for transitional periods such as from middle to high school.

A team of teachers and division staff members will figure out guidelines to help teachers implement those tenets. Farrell said she hopes to start the teacher roundtables soon to start on those regulations.

The grading policy is broader and focuses on beliefs because Farrell said that will help teachers buy in to the changes.

“We really believed and still do that a teacher understanding the why behind the changes is vital for this to take hold,” she said. “This is going to be a big shift for some folks. So for us, on-boarding folks to the purpose of grading and getting everybody on the same page about that is really important.”


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