Eagle County Schools to pilot standards-based grading this year
New grading policy to create system that focuses on what students know and can do
In an effort to address disproportionate outcomes for students, Eagle County Schools has embarked on a journey toward building equity across its schools. As part of this process, the district began looking at grading as one area in need of improvement.
“As a result of the pandemic, what we noticed and heard from teachers was that it was harder to assess kids, know how to grade them and know where they were at in this different (remote) learning model,” said Tia Luck, the school district’s equity coordinator. “That was this blaringly obvious thing that needed focus.”
Through this realization, the district began a multi-year process to examine and determine the best way to create an equitable grading program. Now, this year, schools across the local district will begin the first year of piloting a standards-based grading practice.
In an interview with the Vail Daily, Luck read educational researcher Robert Marzano’s definition of standards-based grading:
“Standards-based grading is a method of assigning grades that ties student achievement to specific topics within each subject area. It allows teachers, students, and parents to clearly communicate about specific areas of strength and need. Ultimately, standards-based grading gives a clear and concise answer to the student’s question, ‘What do I need to do to improve?'”
Over the next four years, the district will seek to embrace this definition and create a standards-based learning and assessment system that will address and standardize across curriculum, assessment, instruction and reporting. However, in its first year, different schools will begin varying levels of implementation — with the idea that they’re all going to the same place.
“There are clear advantages for students and their parents in this model because it gives way more specific feedback about actually what the student knows and can do and what their next steps are,” Luck said. “We want all of our students to be successful in going on to whatever they do next. And the best way to communicate that is to give them feedback on their academic proficiency of the content.”
How the district got here
Before the district even began determining how it would change its grading practices, it created its reasoning for doing so. In its most stripped-down form, the idea is that the new grading practices will align practices across the district; it will remove the predictability of success based on certain demographic factors and it will create a sense of belonging for all students.
In order to build toward a more aligned and accurate system of grading, the district’s process began with the creation of a district grading committee. This committee was comprised of teacher representatives from all schools, grade levels and subject areas as well as district administrators and leaders.
Through this, Luck said there was “overwhelming support for working towards alignment and working towards best practice,” from teachers.
In March 2021, all teachers in the district completed a survey following an introduction to equitable grading practices, which revealed that 95% of teachers agreed or strongly agreed that they were “eager for my school and the district to make progress towards more equitable and aligned grading practices.”
This group — through book studies, research, trainings and feedback — began to create resources around a new grading practice ahead of the 2021-22 school year. This practice had two priority practices or philosophies, Luck said.
“The philosophy that grades should represent a student’s academic proficiency and not other things, and the philosophy of a culture of revision,” she added. “And so that’s what we went into last year, supporting those two things.”
As different schools took varying approaches to these philosophies — some wanting to go in completely and others were proceeding with caution — varying levels of acceptance and success were found, Luck said.
“A clear hurdle last year was lack of time to support teachers, and any kind of real shift from traditional practices just means a lot of training time and we went into the year thinking we’d have more, and we just didn’t. So that was hard and created some challenges for sure,” she said. “And so we made adjustments mid-year.”
Specifically, mid-year, Luck added, came the realization that more flexibility was needed school-to-school and the district more specifically embraced the language, implementation and research of standards-based grading.
Following additional work and research from the grading committee — and the teachers piloting the program providing valuable feedback — the district is coming back this school year with a renewed focus on standards-based learning and assessment system.
Part of the learning from the previous year — aside from there needing to be more support for implementation — was that “it’s really difficult to try to grade based on academic proficiency and embrace a cultural revision if you’re keeping everything else the same,” Luck said.
“If you’re trying to take those things and put them in a traditional model of assessment and grading, it’s a really hard fit and creates extra work,” she added.
Heading into its new four-year plan toward implementing the standards-based system, it will aim at addressing all four parts of the system: curriculum, assessment, instruction and reporting.
And when it comes to grading, the idea is simple: “We’re creating this system so that students’ grades represent what they know and can do,” Luck said.
While it’s extremely difficult to remove biases from anything, this new system will seek to be better in terms of not allowing environmental factors to influence a student’s grade.
“This will be less subjective because it’s based on standards and how students perform against the standard,” Luck said. “It’s taking out the things that most negatively impact our kids from low socioeconomic families; things like homework completion, things like you get points because your planner was signed; you get points because you brought in your Kleenex box. Those are things that if your environment makes it difficult for you to complete those tasks and so therefore you already have a D, that lowers motivation from the start and it makes it a lot harder to feel the motivation to do well in academics if you feel like you’re set up to fail.”
While implementation will vary by school during this school year, this grading model will move away from an A through F scale and toward a 0 to 4 scale.
In the district’s brochure on its new grading practices, the reasoning for this shift is three-fold: It more directly supports standards-based practices, matches the 4.0 GPA grading scale and is “less prone to error and variance, oriented more towards success and simpler to understand and use than a 0-100 point grading scale.”
“In traditional grading, you have this 100-point scale and you put anything and everything into the grade book and it just averages together into this one grade, which depending on the teacher and the classroom, could mean that you know all the content or it could mean that you’re really compliant and your parent does your homework for you and you don’t know any of the content,” Luck said.
“We want all of our students to be successful in going on to whatever they do next. And the best way to communicate that is to give them feedback on their academic proficiency of the content,” she added.
In order to show academic proficiency, there will also be changes to the grade book. The grade book will still contain assignments, tests, papers, etc. However, teachers will now attach learning goals or standards to each of these tasks. Students will then be graded on how the task showed their mastery of each standard. Over the course of the semester, students will be assessed on the same standards multiple times.
“It matters not where you were at the beginning of the unit or learning period, but at the end,” Luck said. “So if by the end of the unit you’ve shown that you have mastered that standard, then that’s what will be calculated into your final grade. It embraces this notion that it’s not about what I do, it’s about if I can show that I know the content.”
Within this comes the “culture of revision,” which doesn’t mean unlimited do-overs on tasks, Luck said. Rather, it empowers students to find new ways to show and express their learning to teachers.
“It’s going to take students and teachers time to figure out manageable and great ways to do this. But in the end, students should feel empowered to be like, ‘Hey, I did really poorly on that last assessment. I feel like I wasn’t set up for success. I don’t feel like that represented my knowledge in this standard. Can I show you another way?’” Luck said.
The standards being used will be the grade-level standards developed by the Colorado Department of Education. While teachers have long used these standards to create their curriculum and courses, they will now be more transparent to teachers and students.
“We are already a system that teaches based on standards; that’s not changing, but now we’re being really specific in our alignment and making sure that every assessment, every part of every assessment is tied to specific standards,” Luck said. “This is just going to ensure that all courses and teachers are standards-based and that’s how students are getting their feedback on their learning.”
In the new 0 to 4 scale, each number will represent a proficiency based on that specific standard. A “3” will represent that a student has met that grade-level standard. A “4,” however, will not be unattainable, Luck said.
“The wording in that level 4 is that you can take your understanding of that grade level standard and you can apply it in a creative way; you can transfer it to a different situation,” she said. “A ‘4’ is very much in reach for students. We want to make sure that we’re giving kids all the opportunities they can to get to that highest level because we know that that’s what’s best for them in all parts of their life, not just to get a good grade.”
While Luck acknowledges that it will take time for teachers, students, parents and administrators to adjust to this new model, the hope is that not only will it be a collaborative process to make it manageable, but also that it, in the end, will work better for teachers and give kids “more opportunities to learn and then show their learning.”
“Traditional education does a lot of shutting kids out of learning and in the end this system, when it’s done well, just keeps inviting kids to learn and learn more and be better and be more successful,” Luck said.
Eagle County Schools is hardly the first school to head down this path toward a standards-based model. In fact, Luck said that its neighboring districts of Roaring Fork and Summit are also heading this direction.
“And, across the state and across the country, it’s really common,” she added.
This is epitomized by the expressed acceptance and support from college admissions officers, who Luck said are “100% used to this.”
“They see it from students across the country. And the overwhelming response that we get is that they prefer a standards-based reporting model because it gives them more information,” Luck said. “We have been in contact with college admission officers about a change in scale, and we have created a letter that students will send with their transcripts that explains our scale.”
What this year will look like
The district is referring to this year as a pilot year for standards-based grading. As such, Luck said that schools had the choice to continue with a traditional grade book while working on the other aspects of the standards-based system (curriculum, instruction, assessment); or to use the standards-based grade book while working on the other aspects as well.
“We’re all still going to the same place, we just need to take different paths and different timelines to get there,” she said. “We acknowledge the learning curve and the goal is to make it so that we’re using the time we have more effectively to give kids the most valuable feedback that we can.”
With piloting, Superintendent Philip Qualman acknowledged the likelihood of obstacles and problem solving along the way.
“That is the beauty of a ‘pilot’ program. It helps us anticipate challenges and troubleshoot solutions while reminding us of the necessity to remain flexible and make adjustments when appropriate,” he said.
All middle schools, Red Canyon High School, Vail Ski and Snowboard Academy and all but two elementary schools will be piloting the new grade book this year, Luck said.
“Piloting looks like embracing that standards-based learning model — that’s the alignment of standards in curriculum, assessment and instruction,” she said. “And then in terms of the reporting, that’s where parents will see the biggest change because they’ll have that standards-based grade book.”
Every family, she added, will be receiving clear communication about what is happening at their specific school as well as where the district is headed. In addition, Luck said it should be a part of all schools’ back-to-school nights, parent-teacher conferences and newsletters going forward.
“The most important thing for parents to do is understand the shift from earning points to learning,” Luck said. “So when you’re looking at the gradebook with your child, instead of asking about what do you need to do, it’s: ‘What standards are you needing to focus on? And how can we support your learning in those standards?’ Which is a huge shift.”
To learn more about the district’s plan for adopting standards-based grading, visit EagleSchools.net/departments/equity/grading-practices
Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.