Heather Riggall proofreads a paper.
Grades weren't all that instructive for Heather Riggall before she went to New Technology High School in California's famed Napa Valley.
"At my old high school, if you got forty out of fifty, you didn't really know why you didn't get fifty," says Riggall, who graduated in 2003. "Was it because you turned it in late? Was content lacking? Was it because of mechanical errors?"
Then there were the thoughts that a bad grade might be personal. "Especially if you go to a teacher afterward and they won't explain to you why you got a certain grade, you'll be, 'It's because they don't like me. It's because my hair is like this, because I wear these shoes,'" Riggall says.
Peter Abboud checks his grades, which are broken down into up to eight categories.
Different Grades for Writing, Work Ethic
At New Tech High, a 210-student, eleventh- through twelfth-grade public charter school focused on project-based learning, technology, and real-world experiences, there is no room for such unproductive speculation about a teacher's rationale for a certain grade. Grades are broken down into as many as eight categories, including work ethic, writing mechanics, oral communication, critical thinking, technology literacy, collaboration, and subject matter mastery.
And they are available on the Internet -- with a password -- for students and parents to analyze. When she gets a grade, Riggall, who wants to be a writer or actress, knows precisely why she got it. "When I get things like this back," she says, looking at a recent paper on restaurants in a food court, "I'll see that my content is on point. And because I hate proofreading, I'll get marked down on mechanics."
That separate mark for mechanics serves as a potent reminder of her weak spots. "I know [that] I know grammar and spelling and things like that," Riggall says. "So it bothers me that my mechanics are graded lower. So then I take more time to proofread."
Senior Peter Abboud says the grade breakdowns plus teachers' rubrics -- charts spelling out expectations on a particular assignment -- are so specific that students pretty much know the grade they'll get before they hand in their paper or project.
For instance, the critical-thinking rubric tells a student that he or she will have done "advanced" work if, on the subject of application of skills, the student "actively seeks new environments and situations to apply theories, principles and/or skills." On the other hand, the student will have done "unsatisfactory" work if he or she "does not demonstrate an ability to apply theories, principles and/or skills to new situations, settings or problems" and "is not able to modify theories, products, behaviors, or skills to fit new or changed environments.
"Proficient" work in written communication "communicates effectively with awareness of audience and purpose; writing is coherent, adequately organized and developed; provides a variety of details, quotations or examples to support claims; demonstrates adequate control of sentence structure with appropriate use of language and word choice; reflects fundamental control of the conventions of written English and is generally free of errors."
"Advanced" work "communicates insightfully with consistent awareness of audience and purpose; writing is confident, coherent, clearly focused, well-organized, and thoroughly developed; provides a variety of well-chosen details, quotations, or examples to support claims; demonstrates exceptional control of sentence structure with precise use of language and word choice; reflects mastery of the conventions of written English and is virtually free of errors."
"There's no surprise on your grades," says Abboud, who regularly scores in the high 90s on content and written communication. If he has a weak point, he says it is technology literacy, on which his scores are often in the 80s. Wanting to improve on the technology portion of his grade, he has scheduled after-school sessions with a digital media teacher.
Paul Curtis, a former Teacher of the Year in Napa and director of curriculum for the New Technology Foundation, which is working to replicate the innovations at New Tech High in other schools, says traditional transcripts are "almost useless."
"If a kid gets a C in an English class, you don't know what that means. You can't tell if the kid is a very talented writer, doesn't do his homework because he finds it boring, or if he's a struggling ESL student. There's no real information about the student's skills or abilities."
A student may have had a grade reduced by ten points because an assignment was late. "So a paper that was once a B+ is now a C-. So they throw that C- into their gradebook and that's the grade. You've just lost a huge amount of data about the skills and abilities of that student."
Teacher Brooke Armstrong agrees that the grading system provides a "more accurate measure" of how her students are doing, and she notes that work ethic seems to be the biggest hurdle for many students. She also says the system allows for more contact with parents because grades are updated every two weeks and parents have access to the grades on the Internet. "It makes us sure to keep up on our grading, and it gives parents the opportunity to see if their students are falling down before a progress report or report card."
Parents also can see why students may be struggling. "Rather than assume that the student isn't turning in work or needs to study more, it may be an issue with presenting skills or collaboration," Armstrong says.
There's another issue with grades at New Tech High. Both Abboud and Riggall say marks at the wine country school mean something.
"When you get a grade here, you're more proud of it because you know how much work you put into it," says Riggall.
"When you get an A, it certainly is an A," adds Abboud.
Diane Curtis is a veteran education writer and a former editor for The George Lucas Educational Foundation.