The American grading system, where students receive an A, B, C, D or F letter grade based on percentages, has been in use since the early 1900s. But a growing number of educators argue that system stacks the odds against students.
Mountain View High School hopes to change its grading procedures this year in a way that gives students an equal chance of succeeding.
“They have 40 chances to pass and 60 chances to fail,” said Matt Tidwell, an associate principal at the school. “So if there are five letter grades we need to make sure that those five letter grades have equal distribution.”
When school begins later this month, Mountain View teachers will use either a 0 to 4 point scale or a 50 to 100 point scale. This changes the distribution of grades so that each letter grade ranges 10 percent, instead of an “F” ranging from 0 to 59 percent.
As a result, no student will ever receive a grade lower than 50 percent. GPAs, class rankings and honor roll will all remain intact.
Mountain View principal Todd Garelick said that when a student gets a zero on an assignment, it takes a lot of work to try and salvage a good grade for the entire semester. Multiple zeros make it even harder.
“If a kid is getting below a 40 percent in a class there is no way you’re digging out of that,” Tidwell added. “And when a kid can’t dig out of something, they give up. We’ve seen it year after year after year.”
According to Mountain View sophomore Talon Kohler, students at the school “don’t really try.”
“It’s a good school, but when it comes down to getting an F, it’s like ‘Oh no I have an F, too bad,’” he said.
While Kohler doesn’t believe that a new grading scale will change his classmates’ attitudes towards school, Garelick and Tidwell believe it will because it makes the system less punishing and more encouraging for students to get back on their feet.
“You have to have kids invested in the learning and continue to have hope in the fact that they can be successful,” Garelick said.
An increasing number of schools have switched to this method, called “standards-based” grading, as outlined in the book “Grading from the Inside Out.” It was written by Tom Schimmer, a former teacher, school administrator and leading expert on classroom assessment.
The philosophy behind the change is all about giving a grade that is fundamentally tied to a standard, or how much a student knows about a particular topic.
Tidwell said putting a zero in the grade book for a missed assignment doesn’t show how much or little a student knows about that subject, it just punishes them for not doing it.
“No student should have a zero anyway, because we’re going to demand that every student is engaged in learning and doing what they’re supposed to be doing in class,” Garelick said.
In preparation for this grading scale change, Mountain View has enacted a “no opt-out” policy where students are required to do their assignments, whether it’s finished by the due date or not.
“The punishment or consequence for not doing homework is to do the homework,” Tidwell said. “That’s what it should be, not the zero.”
If a student doesn’t turn in an assignment, instead of receiving a zero grade and moving on, that student will be sent to “base camp,” which Tidwell described as an after-school intervention program on campus where kids can complete the work they missed and make up the full grade.
He added that the no opt-out policy actually demonstrates life in the “real world.” People still have to finish a task even if it’s past the deadline. No one gets off the hook for not doing their work.
Mountain View started this program because administrators wanted a way to address students’ behavioral dispositions separately from their academic achievement, according to Tidwell. He said it has been “tremendously successful” so far.
“(Students) have anxiety, they have stress from school, they have social media, they have things at home that they’re dealing with, and so we as educators need to make sure that the systems we put in place for them allow for success,” he said.
This builds on the idea that education is not a “one size fits all” system. Garelick said some kids are poor test takers, but get “A’s” on all their homework assignments. Some kids don’t do their homework because they have to take care of siblings or may have a job, but they get perfect scores on tests because they know the material.
Both educators hope the standards-based system will create more accuracy in grade reporting since these variations between students are inevitable. It will reflect solely what the student has learned, with less reliance on how well they followed directions.
“We don’t want to grade kids on compliance, we want to grade them on knowledge,” Garelick said.
There are school districts across the country addressing their grading policies in this way. Most elementary schools in the Marana Unified School District already have standards-based grading.
The no opt-out policy, the standards-based assessment and the new grading scale are all components in a larger philosophical shift that Mountain View is working toward, according to Garelick. He said the move has been in the works for about four years.
“We’ve been working on a lot of different things in the last few years trying to address the climate and culture of the school,” Garelick said. “This is the year we’re going to have everything come together and that’s what we’re most excited about. It took a lot of work to get to this point.”
Tidwell said Mountain View’s changes have already received attention from other schools. While grading policies may seem like a district-level decision, the Mountain View administrators believe that when individual teachers or schools make positive changes, it gets noticed by others who rapidly adopt those changes into their own classrooms.
“That’s the grassroots movement and we know how powerful that can be,” Garelick said. “We’re grateful for the opportunity to start doing this here, knowing full well that while it will impact Mountain View kids in the immediate future, it will impact kids at Marana High School, MCAT and then hopefully it will keep spreading out.”
Mountain View staff will host an informational meeting to answer questions about the changes July 31 at 6 p.m. in the school’s auditorium, located at 3901 W. Linda Vista Boulevard. Parents and students are encouraged to attend, but the meeting is open to all members of the public.