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RPS's new grading system, Grading for Learning, gets poor marks with many teachers

Teachers say they have lost autonomy in the classroom and are dealing with tremendous workloads.

Grading for Learning
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ROCHESTER — A Rochester Public Schools graduate removed from their high school years by three or more years probably wouldn’t recognize the grading system used to evaluate today’s students.

It’s so different.

Take test-taking. Failing a test is not the black mark it once was. Today’s RPS students, if they fail a test, get multiple bites at the apple until they pass.

Today, homework is no longer called “homework” but “practice.” But whatever the name, it no longer can count toward a student’s grade. Nor can tardiness, behavior or class participation. Students can't fail. Instead they get "no credit."

Students can be graded on only one measure called a summative assessment.

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The new grading system, called Grading for Learning, is getting low marks in the eyes of many Rochester teachers.

Less than two years into the new grading system, many teachers say they find the system endlessly frustrating because of the workload it has created for them when students get multiple do-overs.

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They say that the system creates an unhealthy chain-reaction in many students. Knowing that homework is not graded, they chose not to do it. And because they haven’t done the homework or other non-grading assignments, they aren’t prepared to take the exam, which they can take multiple times anyway.

As teachers hand out an exam, it is not uncommon to hear students ask, “when is the re-take?”

Pendulum swings

Among some disgruntled teachers, it’s disparagingly labeled Grading for Apathy. And some teachers are finagling ways to work around it, teachers said.

Teachers skeptical of Grading for Learning say that they saw the potential value of the new system when it was first being rolled out and introduced.

Many recognized that grading had become too subjective. Teachers took liberties with their grade books, rewarding or penalizing students for things as trivial as bringing in Kleenex boxes to class. Consequently, grading the work of students was all over the board. Grades didn’t show what a student actually knew.

But many teachers say the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction, taking away some of the autonomy teachers once had.

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When the district made summative assessments 100 percent of a student’s grade, many teachers believe they lost some tools in their teaching tool box.

“There’s a certain feeling of reward,” said one middle school teacher speaking about the value of grading homework. “They don’t have that intrinsic motivation. (When they get an A on their homework), it’s like getting a bonus paycheck.”

John Marshall High School math teacher Jake Johnson said the problems and challenges teachers are confronting with Grading for Learning stem from flawed training and roll-out.

Johnson limits student test re-takes to within two weeks of the first exam. Yet, some teachers are under the impression that they can’t impose deadlines and boundaries within Grading For Learning.

“I’ve done Grading for Learning. And I’ve actually done the next step, which is proficiency or standards-based grading,” Johnson said. “And what I would say is that without proper training and without proper roll-out, which I don’t honestly think has happened successfully at RPS, Grading for Learning has been destined to fail since the beginning.”

Johnson added that more boundaries are needed not just for the benefit of teachers, but students as well. He doesn’t want his students to worry about having to take multiple assessments at once at some point in the semester because they failed previous tries.

“If we’re going to actually talk in our district about social and emotional learning, which is thrown out all the time, then where is the social emotional learning when you have a 14-year-old having to worry about six different classes and four different tests,” Johnson said. “That’s the unhealthy, crazy piece to me.”

Learning for the sake of learning

Not that Grading for Learning learning doesn’t have its advocates among the teaching ranks.

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Scott Lyke, a Mayo High School teacher, has been using Grading for Learning practices before it became a district directive.

Like life, Grading for Learning offers multiple opportunities, and that’s a good thing as far as he is concerned. Students learn at different speeds. Many people take a driver’s test more than once and there is no penalty for them in terms of higher insurance rates.

“I actually felt like it’s been quite successful,” Lyke said. “I think where people are frustrated with it, or where there’s some hiccups, it’s just that it’s such a departure from what we did.”

Lyke said Grading for Learning has a “pure aspect to it.” It’s an attempt, he said, to move education to a place where “we wish it would be — where everybody’s kind of moving at their own pace and where everybody’s kind of coming to their own discoveries.”

“Part of this is trying to move education to being something where we’re learning for the sake of learning, as opposed to learning for the sake of figuring out where I fit in the ranking,” Lyke said.

Giving students hope

District officials say Grading for Learning is an outgrowth of a nearly decade-long conversation about grading practices and “what works for students,” said Heather Willman, a principal on special assignment with a focus on secondary curriculum, instructional coaching and staff development.

In 2016, a group of teachers and administrators was convened, and one thing became clear from the conversation: Grading was all over the place at RPS, Willman said.

From these talks, a few core principles were hammered out that would become part of the new grading system. One of the core ideas is that students should have an opportunity to practice before they get a mark or grade.

Another idea was to allow students to “re-assess” — not endlessly, but enough times to show the learning they had acquired. Another principle was to keep behavior and academics separate when it came to grading students.

“We think (behavior and work habits) are really important, but making sure that they’re not all mixed up into one grade, because then it’s hard to tell," she said.

Willman said that any high school principal or registrar will tell you that students who are doing poorly in school by mid-semester begin to look for educational alternatives elsewhere if they feel there is no hope. Giving students an opportunity to reassess keeps them off that track.

“When everything that’s done in the classroom is graded or given points, it’s hard to show what you know and don’t know,” Willman said.

Making adjustments

William Laudon, a Mayo High School student, sees both the good and the bad with Grading for Learning.

“I think it’s a very effective way of measuring progress and how you’re actually doing in class,” Laudon said. “But in terms of getting students ready for college and the real world, I don’t know how much it’s preparing them.”

Schools are already making adjustments to its perceived inflexibility.

Eric Johnson, John Marshall High School principal, recalled a conversation last month with his teacher leadership team in which one teacher expressed frustration with Grading for Learning. The teacher was complaining about how students were taking the tests “again and again and again.”

They came up with a plan to stop the serial test-taking.

“We came up with an agreement that John Marshall students have 10 days from the time of an assessment to finish up any reassessments,” Johnson said.

Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel, who was not the district’s leader when the system went districtwide last year, said Rochester should take a comprehensive look at Grading for Learning, both in terms of implementation and lessons learned, next year.

“We know that grading issues go to the core of education," he said, "and it’s always a complex conversation.”

Matthew Stolle has been a Post Bulletin reporter since 2000 and covered many of the beats that make up a newsroom. In his first several years, he covered K-12 education and higher education in Rochester before shifting to politics. He has also been a features writer. Today, Matt jumps from beat to beat, depending on what his editor and the Rochester area are producing in terms of news. Readers can reach Matthew at 507-281-7415 or mstolle@postbulletin.com.
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