Districts across the country have made strides toward grading reform, often landing on some version of standards-based grading. Naysayers claim it’s just a trend in education, proponents say it’s an innovation, but both are left with the question: How do we actually implement a new system and make meaningful changes?
It’s simple—you’ve got to start with the root of the problem. Dive into grade books, and it won’t take you long to uncover the discrepancies among teachers who teach the exact same course. Grading is uniformly an inconsistent practice, which can be radically different from teacher to teacher.
For example, we easily uncovered grade book inequities such as a student in teacher A’s class performing identically to a student in teacher B’s class on tests measuring standards. However, the students’ grades differed from a C to an A because of how categories were weighted and how the points were arbitrarily assigned. When you cannot stand by grading practices such as these, you can begin the process of justifying the Herculean task of altering them.
Fargo Public Schools in North Dakota set out to find a practical model and implement it. The district established a strategic plan with an initiative to create a guaranteed and viable curriculum that is both comprehensive and equitable.
Transitioning to Evidence-Based Grading
Starting in 2019, we found success in switching to an evidence-based model. Evidence-based grading uses a body of evidence to determine student learning toward a set of skills and standards while increasing student agency and efficacy. To embark on this paradigm shift, the following action steps were followed:
- Professional learning community (PLC) teams agreed on which state standards were essential and what their course-enduring skills were.
- Points and percentages were removed and replaced with a four-point scale using common proficiency scales to report student progress.
- Volunteer teacher groups piloted the process early to provide a model for others.
- PLC teams were repurposed to improve collective efficacy and calibrate common assessments to unify grading.
- Strategic expert personnel were used to guide the implementation process for teachers in addition to the district centering their professional development to support understanding.
- Teachers were given more time to collaborate by altering the daily instructional schedule to allow for PLCs to meet more frequently. Teachers were also given curriculum release days to meet with their PLC teams for an entire workday to create proficiency scales and common assessments.
A yearly timeline was also established for implementation and to ensure an easier transition, beginning with sixth grade in fall 2021. Grades seven and eight followed in the subsequent years. All secondary courses will be fully implemented by fall 2025; however, because of the success with early adopters, some high schools in the district are at nearly 75 percent implementation, well ahead of the timeline.
The Role of Traditional Letter Grades
To facilitate the transition and adapt to new mental frameworks, traditional letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) remained at the high school level and for all credit-bearing courses at any level. This allows for grade point averages to still be reported, making college and scholarship applications an unchanged process. However, grade books have evolved to encompass student proficiency scores, categorizing them based on the enduring skills for each course.
To achieve an A in any course by the end of the semester, students are required to attain a proficiency level of 3 (proficient) across all enduring skills in the course. Conversely, a proficiency level of 2 (partially proficient) or 1 (developing) in any of the enduring skills will lower the letter grade.
In middle school, a few courses such as algebra and geometry still use traditional grading because they receive high school credit. But largely, middle school students do not receive letter grades. Eligibility for things that require a certain GPA is based on proficiency scores.
This grading system ensures that a student’s performance is holistically evaluated, using a body of evidence to account for their proficiency across all enduring skills in the course.
Changes Beyond Grading
The results have transcended simply changing the grading system. The transition caused a shift in mental models for educators around instructional practices, curriculum, and assessments, with one 27-year-veteran teacher reporting that shifting to this model has “made me a better teacher, period.”
The hyper-alignment of standards with proficiency scales and specific success criteria needed to reach proficiency has greatly improved communication with students. Students are now active participants in their learning instead of merely recipients. The discussions between teachers and students evolved from “How can I get three points back?” to “What do I need to learn to show proficiency on this assessment?”
This clarity enables students to understand exactly what they need to know (content) and how they need to showcase that knowledge (through a skill). For example, students in a science class recognized that their comprehension of genetics would be reflected in their ability to analyze and interpret data. Meanwhile, in social studies, students would convey the involvement of the U.S. in World War I through the skill of argumentation.
A few years in, we’re reaping the rewards. Courses have increased their rigor by introducing standards they’ve traditionally never taught in previous years. Students are gaining a more holistic skill base by practicing argumentation skills in multiple classes. They are learning what it means to build a line of reasoning as a writer, as a scientist, and as a historian, revealing the success of a cross-curricular approach.
Now our PLC groups are functioning beyond the cyclical planning stage. For the first time, they are analyzing student data to drive and inform their instruction while determining the effectiveness of their assessments. With teachers being more intentional with alignment and using data to drive decisions, they meet the needs of each student, closing learning gaps. Suddenly, grading reform is no longer an initiative in education, but a remarkable and necessary innovation.