The Wauwatosa School District is continuing the transformation of its grading system in an effort to better reflect what a student has learned, as opposed to what a teacher has taught.
The new system, presented last month to the School Board, represents in some ways a significant departure from traditional teaching and grading practices.
While it still values subject-matter delivery, it emphasizes to a greater degree the application of what is learned, problem-solving skills and project-based learning, and represents a paradigm shift from "the teacher taught it" to "the student learned it."
This is the second time the system has been introduced. A year ago, the grading change was implemented just before school started, and many teachers said they were not prepared for it and reacted against it.
The School Board and administrators later acknowledged that the introduction of the program was mishandled. In the year since, a grading committee has been established involving dozens of teachers and administrators, and a new handbook for teachers has been created and distributed.
The grading system has at its core four elements:
· It seeks to eradicate zeros from the grading scale altogether, instead replacing them with an "M" for missing or an "I" for incomplete, which, unlike zeros, are not factored into the grade.
· While teachers will insist that missing assignments be completed before the end of the term, they will offer multiple opportunities for completion, and even multiple methods of completion, acknowledging that students learn in different ways.
· The new system reduces the grading value of homework to just 10 percent of a student's grade, viewing it as "practice" as opposed to a graded assignment.
· It eliminates extra credit.
The system moves away from the traditional percentage-based grading system, from zero to 100, replacing it with a four-point scale.
The effect of zeros
Clint Grochowski, an associate principal at Wauwatosa West High School and a member of the grading committee, said zeros are being eliminated because they are viewed as excessively punitive and don't reflect student learning.
"At the secondary level in Wauwatosa, zeros are no longer acceptable," he said.
Research shows that zeros cause students to withdraw from learning, and, for students who struggle, "they actually dig themselves a bigger hole that's harder to climb out of by the end of the quarter."
He provided an illustration of how a zero can distort the picture of a student. One student might have a series of 100s in a class, and one zero, for a final average of 80. Another student might have a 90, a 60, an 80, and so forth, averaging to 80.
"And what we're saying is, the way things have always been done, this is the same student. To me, that doesn't look like the same student," Grochowski said.
Replacing zeros with an incomplete grade means a student still has to do the work.
But, "it's not about how fast you learn something, it's that you learn it. It's about improving proficiency on assessments, and not necessarily on the first try," Grochowski said. "There will be a period of teaching and learning, and then assessment," a process that continues until the skill or material is mastered.
The theory is that there are different kinds of learners and people who learn at different rates.
"You need to give the kids a continuum, and tell them this is where you're going, and this is where you're at," social studies teacher Mary Johnston said. "I think it's really important, when you're measuring skills, not to punish them."
She tells her students that it's like climbing Mount Everest. "What matters is whether you reach the summit."
A new view of homework
"We would like to get to a direction where homework, or what I would really like to call it, 'practice work,' wouldn't count for anything, unless it truly reflects the learning of the student," Grochowski said.
"We don't want to punish students for practicing," Director of Student Learning Beth Erenberger said. "We want them to have opportunities to make mistakes, to be able to take risks ... with material, and not maybe have it right the first time, and be able to get feedback and learn from those mistakes."
School Board member Mary Jo Randall said she has heard that students have said they don't have to do homework any more.
Erenberger said homework should be connected to what is being taught in the classroom, and what is being assessed.
"You have to make the homework meaningful — to be connected to something," she said. "If it's a random act of homework, or if it's something that a student already knows how to do ... then it's very difficult to motivate students."
Eliminating extra credit
The new system takes a dim view of extra credit.
"Quite frankly, extra credit has been used and abused by teachers and students, historically," Grochowski said. "A lot of times extra credit has been given out for attending a football game or bringing a box of Kleenex in" — activities having nothing to do with student learning.
Implementation of the new grading system is an ongoing process.
"We definitely have teachers in different places," Erenberger said.
Classrooms that implemented the new standards last year, or with teachers that used the new system in a different district, might see little change, but others are still in transition.
"Just as we have students at different readiness levels, we have teachers at different readiness levels," she said.
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