Eagle County School District says it is making progress with standards-based grading

This school year, the majority of its schools and teachers piloted or fully implemented standards-based grading as it pushes toward a new, equitable model

As the district forges ahead with standards-based grading, it is working to add supports for teachers, families and students.
Chris Dillmann/Vail Daily Archive

At the start of the most recent school year, the Eagle County School District continued the rollout of its new standards-based grading. As schools began to implement the new grading program at varying paces, the district is working to refine the program and add support and resources for students, families and teachers.  

“Whenever you’re adopting something new, you have the early adopters who are right on it and you have some folks who are a little nervous about it,” said Katie Jarnot, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.

“Our vision of what it should be really hasn’t changed and our reason for doing it hasn’t changed. But I think as teachers became more proficient with it, their practices changed, and I think they got better at it. And I think we’ll all continue to get better at it.”

Referring to this year as a “pilot” for the program, all but the district’s two traditional high schools — Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley — implemented the program during the 2021-22 school year. Battle Mountain and Eagle Valley both had a few teachers pilot the new system, and both will begin full implementation at the start of the 2023-24 school year this August. 

What is standards-based grading?

The district made the decision to move toward this new grading practice as it aims to increase equity in its schools.

Support Local Journalism

“Across the district, we have 18 different schools, and what we found, especially during COVID, was that we had 18 different ways of grading. And then even within those schools, we had different ways of grading, and there wasn’t a common language,” Jarnot said, adding that the goals of the new program are “really coming up with a common language, making sure that kids are prepared, that they’re reaching those standards and that they’re moving ahead.”

This includes standardizing how schools and teachers approach curriculum, assessment, instruction and reporting.

At a high level, the district defines five main principles of this grading system:

  • Grades are accurate, using calculations that are “mathematically sound, easy to understand, and correctly describe a student’s level of academic performance on priority standards”
  • Grades reflect academic proficiency, measured by “varied assessments and a body of evidence.” Within this, while a student’s homework, behavior and grasp of “essential skills” can be recorded to monitor progress and provide feedback for families and teachers, it “should not be used to penalize a student’s grade”
  • Grades embrace a culture of revision, where a student learns and demonstrates improved learning and higher proficiency, their grade can be replaced
  • Grades will include timely and actionable feedback with transparency
  • Certain soft skills — communication, problem-solving, community engagement and empowerment — will be connected to “student academic performance through specific feedback based on proficiency scales.”

Within this, one of the main goals of standards-based grading is that “kids aren’t being penalized for learning,” but rather are assessed “on what they know and not what they do,” Jarnot said.

Want the news to come to you? Get the top stories in your inbox every morning. Sign up here:

“We want to make sure that we’re not practicing practices that are unintentionally setting kids back,” she added.

In order to assess students based on what they learn rather than what they know, the district is using proficiency scales.

These scales have various levels — from no evidence of learning all the way to demonstrating “exemplary” learning — that show a student’s level of understanding for specific grade-level standards. These standards are rooted in the grade-level standards developed by the Colorado Department of Education. And each proficiency level has a descriptor that defines what that proficiency looks like.

A screenshot of a sample proficiency scale from the Eagle County School District’s website. The scales are intended to outline the progression of learning goals for students and the expectations for each level.
Courtesy Photo

Coming into this year, the district had no proficiency scales, which Jarnot said was a big source of fear for many teachers. Throughout this year, this was a big priority for the district.

At this point, all the district’s teachers have been trained on how to write these proficiency scales. While they don’t have to write any, Jarnot said they can and receive compensation when they do.

This year, teachers from the district wrote and completed 833 proficiency scales. Currently, 287 scales are written but awaiting approval from the district’s curriculum team, which looks at each scale to ensure it “has all the pieces it needs to have,” Jarnot said.

These scales are essential as all of the schools move away from an A through F scale and toward a 0 to 4 scale. In the new numerical scales, each number will represent a proficiency based on that specific standard. 

While it will take a few years for the district to fully implement and find its groove with the new grading system, there are several metrics it will use to track its effectiveness.

“One of the things that kind of pushed us into wanting to go this path was a combination of grade inflation and kids who were failing because they couldn’t get caught up. Mathematically, if you haven’t turned in a bunch of stuff, there comes a point in the semester where all those zeros, whether you know the standards or not, those zeros are going to hold you back and you’re going to fail,” Jarnot said.

Looking forward, Jarnot said the district will look at, “did we bring kids up?” which includes looking at grade distribution and the movement of this grade distribution.

Additionally, it will track college preparedness, which while it is also hard to track, is currently done through an exit survey for high school seniors, Jarnot added. 

 Making improvements

During the school year, the district and its schools continued to refine standards-based grading and respond to the concerns, questions and comments it got from parents, teachers and students.

For teachers

For some schools and teachers, moving toward standards-based grading has not been too big of an adjustment, Jarnot said.

 “Some of our schools have been doing this for years without the district initiative, they continued to move along and those schools have really started to refine their practice,” she said.

However, for the schools and teachers that implemented it for the first time this year, there was a lot of apprehension and worry, Jarnot said.

“We had some schools that were a little bit further behind that made some tremendous growth this year and I think they really just had to start doing it. Once those teachers started just doing it, it was that ‘ah ha’ moment of, ‘Oh, this really isn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be,'” she said.

“It’s not that different from what we’ve been doing before; we’re just doing it in a different way.”

For teachers, Jarnot said the main thing she’s heard is “they’re finding that they’re able to have more academic conversations with kids.”

Rather than worrying about and debating percentages and points, conversations now center around “‘Have you reached the standard yet? And you’ve met these three standards, but you’re missing this chunk, how can we get you to understand that piece of it?'” Jarnot said.

“They’re having much richer conversations with kids,” she added.  

That’s not to say that the transition has been easy. Moving toward standards-based grading “takes a lot of work upfront,” Jarnot said, adding that this means time and learning for teachers.

Throughout the year, to combat this, the district has worked to increase its support for the new practice.

“When you start an initiative, everybody gets the same thing when you start. And then some schools are moving more quickly; some schools are a little further back. And so you have to really individualize what each school needs. And so I feel like we’ve done a much better job of that,” Jarnot said.

This has included and will continue to include dedicating professional development for teachers on the grading system, bringing in standards-based experts from outside the district, training teacher leaders to have the capacity to coach and support their colleagues as well as setting up a system for teachers to ask questions and request support on specific elements of standards-based grading.

“We have to be responsive to what we’re seeing in front of us and help support our teachers, Jarnot said. “It’s really getting everybody on the same page in how we do this. It’s using the proficiency scales, it’s prioritizing the standards, it’s all of those things.”

For families

With the transition to standards-based grading, Jarnot said the district faced a lot of nerves and fear, particularly from families and parents.

“There were more parent questions than we anticipated,” she said. “We put out a series of videos to address those. We held a series of parent meetings to get at that. We had a whole bunch of individual conversations, emails and that sort of thing.”

The most common concerns were around how this grading system would impact college admissions and how the new system would reflect with GPAs, Jarnot noted.

With regard to college admissions, Jarnot acknowledged that this was a “totally reasonable fear,” but that it “doesn’t make a difference, really, in college admissions.”

“What I think people don’t understand is that especially at larger colleges and universities, they get transcripts from all over the world. They don’t have any two transcripts that look alike, and they have their own process for making everybody kind of look the same. And so standards-based grading is like nothing new to them, there are thousands of schools that are doing it,” Jarnot said.

The GPA question, she added was mostly a “misunderstanding.”

“GPA is already on a five-point scale. The weighted classes are five points, an A is 4, so it’s already on that scale. So it really doesn’t make any difference whatsoever to GPA,” she said.

These questions as well as many others it got from families are answered in the district’s video series that it produced and released throughout the year.

Next school year  

Next year, all teachers in the district will be using the standards-based grading system. Much of the focus will be on continuing to support teachers and answer questions, but one big change will be in the district’s approach with the students.

“I think if we left anything out last year, it was teaching the kids what standards-based grading is,” Jarnot said. “We’re coming up with a lesson and a video that all teachers can show to all kids on the first day of school that really addresses this is what it is. We want to make sure that everybody hears the same thing and that we really teach our kids: Why are we doing this? What are we doing? How does it work?”

Support Local Journalism