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The Park City School District’s grand experiment continues

Do you remember your high school grade point average? How about your college GPA? The concept of a GPA and an F to A grading-scale is what most of us grew up with and has been around over 70 years. There is even a saying about that, “A students work for the B students at companies founded by C students.”

If you’ve always felt that the traditional grading of F to A isn’t quite right, then I’ve got good news for you. You can start to forget everything you knew about the archaic method of schools judging your child. The F through A grading-scale isn’t quite dead, but the Park City School District (PCSD) is showing it the door. In its place is a new-fangled grading system. Let me introduce you to 1-4 grading. The fancy name is standards-based grading (SBG) or sometimes called standards-referenced grading (SRG). And it’s coming to a school near you.

Instead of your child receiving an F, D, C, B, or A in a subject, they will now receive a 1, 2, 3, or 4. Generally speaking, a grade of ONE, according to Park City Schools, means “the student requires assistance.” TWO means, “The student has many of the prerequisite skills but has not yet achieved mastery on the Utah State Core Standard.” THREE means “The student has completely mastered the Utah State Core Standard.” FOUR means, “The student has gone above and beyond grade level expectations and has applied extended thinking and application of the standard in novel situations.” Specific 1-4 goals are also written for each and every project, assignment, and assessment to adhere to the state’s core standards.  

The goal of SBG is to assess whether students have competency in a subject. Standards will drive our children’s education. Effort, discipline, and homework don’t impact scores (those are included in a citizenship/behavior score that doesn’t affect 1-4 grades). Children are graded on whether they are proficient in a concept. Currently, Ecker Hill uses SBG throughout the school. Treasure Mountain implements it in many classes. By 2022, Park City School District (PCSD) hopes to implement it throughout the system.

You may be thinking that SBG sounds like a good idea. I think most people probably do because it looks great in concept. That’s where the Park City School District’s grand experiment begins. This year, PCSD introduced SBG to Ecker Hill Middle School. From most accounts, teachers were not adequately trained. Parents were not adequately informed. Students didn’t know what was going on. If you’d like detail, here is a survey completed by over 40% of PCSD teachers that support those assertions. I have also read hundreds of comments from social media about parents not able to explain the process to their children. I’ve talked to kids who don’t understand the grading process — at all.

You see, SBG is confusing. As a reminder, a score of 3 means proficient in a subject and 4 means that a student has demonstrated a level of understanding beyond proficiency in a subject. So, is a 3 an old-world A or is a 4 an old-world A? The school district would likely tell you to stop trying to equate the new with the old. They would say the new world order is that we are NOW judging mastery — and previously we weren’t. So, what were the importance of grades before? Forget that. After a hundred years of A’s meaning proficiency, it is a tough task to retrain teachers, parents, and kids to understand that 3 out of 4 ain’t bad.

To complicate it more, teachers can now give tests that don’t test total proficiency. So, a teacher may decide that the maximum “grade” on a given test is 2. Then your kid comes home with a 2, despite the fact they knew everything on the test — because the test wasn’t designed to test proficiency. The child and parents don’t understand why their kid received a ‘C’ or ‘D’ on the test. In the old world, it would like saying the best you can get on a test is a C. The nuance is tough. Unfortunately, in some ways, the subtlety can be soul-sucking for kids.

Even worse, teacher training for SBG seems to have been haphazard. Teacher training appears to have been a combination of some people attending a course on SBG, others being trained by those teachers who participated in the training, some teachers received some Skype-based training, and others were told to read a book.

When you are turning teachers’, parents’, and kids’ worlds upside down, like when implementing SBG, it can’t be this way. It has to be implemented impeccably. The people who are charged with delivering SBG must be experts. Those people are the teachers, and it’s evident in many cases they weren’t provided with the tools necessary to implement the vision.

I’ve heard talk that teachers at Ecker Hill will soon be rewriting all their SBG goals in more student-friendly language. If true, six months into the school year seems a little late to ensure that students can understand the goals they are graded on.

All that said, like a freight train, standards-based grading is likely coming to all Park City schools. Multiple committees are working on it within the district, and it’s likely to expand to elementary schools and the high school.

In elementary school, it will be interesting to see how SBG will interact with dual immersion programs. Research shows that dual language immersion (DLI) children are often behind in some subjects in the first few years. Then in later years, they are often ahead of their non-immersion counterparts. How will parents react if their young children receive scores lower than they expect because they are behind on meeting the Utah standards? Will parents understand it’s just part of the process? Will they pull their children from the program? Will their children lose confidence because of the scores? Perhaps the district will apply a different standard to DLI students, but that defeats the purpose of standards-based grading.

Then comes issues with high schools. Typically high school grades are of prime importance to college applications and scholarships. If you read about college admissions relating to standards-based grading, you will often read that admissions officers are always looking for the best candidates, regardless of whether they are in a system using traditional grading or standards-based grading. Yet, when you dig deeper, a couple of factors stand out. First, the job of admissions is to compare students. To do that, an admissions officer often needs a conversion-rate from 1-4 grading to a GPA. Take this example from Vancouver i-Tech Preparatory, which is often cited as an example of how to convert to SBG grades when needed. Yet, in the Park City School District FAQ on SBG, they state, “Question: Is a 4 similar to an A? Answer: No. It might make sense to convert the levels of proficiency to the traditional grading system but we avoid doing this because we are no longer averaging learning. In standards-based learning, we describe what a student has learned and to what level.” So, is Park City not going to convert SBG scores to GPAs for colleges? How will this work out? Will the district figure this out? Eventually, they may, but it shows the level of detail and thought needed. Much of this should have been figured out before the entire process started.

As important, standards-based grading may also impact ACT scores negatively. This should be important to high school students and their parents who are contemplating college. A 2018 study by Matt Townsley and Matt Vargas found that both Math and English ACT scores were lower for students in SBG. Math scores were 2.26 points lower when students were enrolled in SBG. English scores were 2.72 points lower.

It’s important to note that Matt Townsley, the author cited above, isn’t militant against SBG. He states that “Traditional grading practices have been used for over one hundred years, and to date, there have been no meaningful research reports to support it.” Likewise, Townsley has also cited studies showing higher academic achievement with SBG.

That said, why were students ACT scores lower when they were in an SBG environment?

Mr. Townsley and Mr. Vargas could not provide a definitive reason for the lower scores. However, they speculated that differences could be based on students “playing the game” with teachers when it came to traditional grading. This then led to a better ability to complete standardized testing. The authors suggest that educators implementing SBG should try to learn as much as they can from other studies and anecdotes in the scientific literature. It’s truly the wild west right now with SBG.

The other long-term issue with SBG is its impact on our teachers. By most accounts, many teachers at Ecker have been left blindsided by this effort. That leads to inconsistent implementation. However, we may not have seen the worst of it. One of the major tenets of SBG is that a child can take a test as many times as necessary to show proficiency. Will Park City mandate that practice? If so, how does a teacher work in that environment? If any parents are going to push their kids to take a test three times to show proficiency, it will be in Park City. How much teacher time will that require? My guess is a lot.

So, is SBG right for Park City? Truthfully, I don’t know that I’m qualified to provide an answer. The age-old joke is that everyone thinks they are an expert in education because everyone attended a school once in their life. What I do know is that Park City’s implementation was bungled.

What seems likely is that the district will need to figure this out within two years. That is when Ecker kids, who are currently under 1-4 grading, will enter high school. At that point, it’s time to sh*t or get off the pot. Once kids hit high school, they need to understand what game they are playing.

One way to look at it is the school district has two years to get it right and they probably will. The other way to look at it is that the district’s actions have negatively impacted kids who will be entering high school soon — and they can’t get that time back.

Ultimately, I hope that we take a step back. Is SBG something we want? If so, how and where do we implement it? Many districts start in K-6. Do we even want it in high school? What’s best for Park City?

More importantly, have we as a community even had those discussions yet?

Studies show SBG provides for higher levels of academic achievement. So, SBG is not a crazy idea. However, studies also show that lower ACT scores may accompany those results. Most importantly, it’s hard to see how academic achievement can be increased if teachers aren’t provided the tools to implement it consistently and accurately in a way that both students and parents understand.

Ultimately, there should have been no rush to implement SBG last fall. Traditional grading has existed for 70 years, and we weren’t going to win any awards for rushing into a new paradigm.

Yet, it seems like we have got ourselves into a bit of a quagmire. Hundreds of children (those at Ecker) are now impacted by a rushed program that wasn’t well thought out. Does the school district double down and continue to push this and impact thousands of students? Do they think a couple of committees can solve the issues in time for the 2019-2020 school year?

Perhaps the better option is to take a deep-breath and step back. Maybe they should follow the advice of one of the teachers who responded to the survey and implement this in elementary schools first. Then they could make more informed decisions for other students.

If the district doesn’t reassess this process, they are looking at a far worse outcome than the failed 2015 bond election. People may begin to question whether the district can design a program that successfully educates their children.

That would be a far cry from when Park City schools were considered one of the best in the state.

Comments

4 Comments

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Park City School District

For information about Standards-Based Learning please visit the Park City School District website at pcschools.us.

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Jo Ann

This has been the District’s canned response and is disturbingly inadequate to address justifiable concerns of teachers, parents and students affected by the botched implementation of SBG. Students performance is suffering from a grandiose plan gone horribly wrong. This is subjecting students to undo stress and negatively affecting their emotional health and well being. I encourage the District to do the right thing; revert back to traditional grading system until such time that a well defined implementation plan for SBG is in place. The consequences of continuing SBG in its current state are untenable.

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Chris

Don’t ask questions or for clarification just review the site! As stated in the article a “rushed program that wasn’t thought out” and not being reviewed for success or thoughtful implementation.

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Anonymous

When you ask questions, all you get are different answers and an excuse about the district moving forward because they think it’s the best thing to do. Parents get told they just don’t understand. Students get told if they want to get a 4 just go above and beyond, but that doesn’t mean anything to them. At Treasure Mountain some of the teachers haven’t put any goals on Canvas or Powerschool like parents were told they would. At Ecker, the system part of it keeps changing. It’s hard to get any real information. It’s like everyone in the district is just winging it and the students and parents are the ones left in the dark. They keep sending out emails about this parent meeting or that parent meeting to learn about standards based learning, but who can go to these meetings because they are at 3-4 in the afternoon when schools are letting out and sports start. It’s the dumbest thing. It’s what our district always does to students and parents to make them feel marginalized. I think it’s so funny that the district has a tag line that says “Park City School District is student-centered with a focus and emphasis on the whole child — our students are safe, supported, engaged, challenged, and healthy.” I guess that’s the goal, but that’s not what’s happening.


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