“We’re just a bit befuddled by Omaha Public Schools (OPS) report card system,” advised Richard and Beverly Payne. “We just don’t know much about it at all. Numbers replaced letters. We’ve tried to read up on it. We finally just accepted it.”
Parents aren’t the only ones confused by OPS’ grading system. “I will be a senior next year,” says Aaron, a North High student. “They have changed the grading system each year and there’s more changes next year. The new grading system makes it impossible to get an 'A'.”
His friend Robert feels the new grading system penalizes good students. “I got my first ever ‘D” with this new grading system.”
OPS phased in grading processes in 2010 and instituted standards based report cards for 2011-2012. Parents who were used to a 100-point grading system with percentages found that grades of 0 (no work completed or missing homework assignments) to 5 (top score) replaced percentage scores.
OPS also uses ‘trending’ with the final grade representing what the student demonstrated knowledge of at the end of the unit instead of an average of all the test scores, project grades, and homework grades during the unit.
Most states do not have statewide uniform grading systems in their schools. Nebraska does not have uniform grading scales or policies. Nebraska law permits each school district to have different curriculum standards as long as they meet the state standards. In 1998 Nebraska passed a law requiring each district to adopt measurable quality academic content standards for reading, writing, math, science and social studies but left it up to each district to determine what those measures would be.
Metro area districts have chosen to adopt some form of standards based reporting with each district (OPS, Westside District 66, Millard and Gretna) implementing its own grading system.
Westside District 66 spent several years and developed detailed and specific criteria for grading each subject. Parent materials and a video were developed and meetings were held to explain the grading changes.
OPS established a parent portal allowing parents to check their student’s homework assignments and grades on line. Under the new system, there is no extra credit. Instead, grades are based on indicators of a student’s mastery of the material, such as assignments, projects and tests. In the past, students could mask a weak grade by doing extra credit work or projects.
Standards based grading breaks down a subject area, such as math, into specific components (such as fractions) that a student is expected to learn during the course. Ken O’Connor, who is known as ‘The Grade Doctor’ helped to develop standards based grading systems.
His book, “How To Grade For Learning” served as a roadmap to help educators develop grading systems based on specific goals for each course (such as learning fractions). O’Connor makes the point that grading isn’t necessary for learning to occur. He further argues that grading systems can be a deterrent to learning, such as reducing points for late homework.
O'Connor reasons that If the student completes the work, then learning has occurred. Penalizing a student for turning in late work can be a deterrent, according to O’Connor. OPS allow a student to turn in an assignment and receive full credit for the work any time during the unit. Once the unit is completed, however, the student receives a zero for either not turning in the homework at all, or for turning it in too late to count.
O’Conner believes that extra credit work doesn’t help demonstrate that a student has mastered the class material and often is used to make up for a lack of understanding and proficiency in the subject. So a student who hadn’t memorized the dates and names of events in a history class might have fudged by doing a book report on war horses instead.
O’Connor makes the point that students shouldn’t be doing ‘extra’, they should be doing the work expected. O’Connor also believes that student behavior should be graded separately from academic achievement. In fact, OPS lumps all non-academic factors, such as effort, attendance and behavior into life skills and reports them separately from academic scores.
With standards based grading, OPS teachers are encouraged to take extra measures to foster student learning of the class materials. Homework is collected and corrected, but it is projects and tests that are calculated into a student’s final grade. But, since homework is a reflection of learning, students are expected to complete and turn in their homework. When they don’t, teachers are expected to take action.
Carolyn Ransom was very surprised to receive a phone call during work from her son’s honors math teacher. She was even more surprised to learn that he hadn’t turned in several assignments. A case of warm spring days and video games? Perhaps. Or perhaps he was banking on getting a good grade on the test and not having to do the homework.
Unfortunately it didn’t work because the student’s test grades reflected that he didn’t know the material. Further, a second call from the teacher indicated that a couple of weeks later the student still wasn’t turning in assignments. The end result was a math marathon of back homework for the student, extra sessions with the math teacher after school and retaking the math tests.
Has the student learned to keep up with homework? “I don’t know about that,” commented his father. “We’re going to find out more during parent-teacher conferences. Right now he’s doing another marathon homework weekend catching up on physics assignments. The OPS progress reports were a little vague. The parent portal didn’t give me details on what the assignments were. So I’ve become ‘email buddies’ with his teachers. Every weekend my son now spends his time at the kitchen table in his ‘homework lab’ catching up on assignments that can still be turned in. And I’m still trying to understand the grading system. I still don't know what 'trending' is.”
One more grade will need to be factored into the equation. No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requires states to establish academic standards and measure student’s progress. In 2005, only nine states (Arkansas, the District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, New Mexico, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia) had statewide uniform reporting standards. Louisiana recently adopted statewide uniform grading criteria.
That leaves the majority of states having a mish mash of reporting systems a bit like comparing apples to oranges and aardvarks to zebras. Or more perhaps like trying to divide by a common denominator when there isn’t one in the equation.
Like a student faced with a confusing story problem, states are looking for a way out when it comes to complying with NCLB and are seeking waivers. In early December of 2011, 11 states filed for waivers, which were granted this February.
Like students copying another’s homework, 26 more states followed suit In March by filing for waivers. Nebraska has not requested a waiver. States have only two choices for meeting NCLB requirements – A) Comply with the law, or B) Apply for a waiver. How Nebraska will fare on its final NCLB report card remains to be seen. Like a student who has a book report due but hasn’t read the book, Nebraska could find itself back in the homework lab on this assignment.