Remaking the Grade

Spokane Public Schools pilots a controversial new way to grade its students

Teacher Tom Rye, center, during an honors pre-calculus class. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Teacher Tom Rye, center, during an honors pre-calculus class.

For decades, students’ grades in Spokane have been simple: They get points for tests, essays and homework and maybe extra credit for attendance. Enough points, get an A. But miss too many questions, too many classes or too many deadlines, and no matter what they know, they’ll fail.

Yet for some teachers at Ferris High School and Shaw Middle School, that isn’t good enough.

They use a different method. Homework hardly ever counts. Extra credit doesn’t exist. Zeroes aren’t given for missing assignments. Instead, there’s only one thing that matters: whether students know their stuff, come report card time.

Spokane Public Schools already uses the model called standards-based grading at elementary schools. Now, the district is considering expanding it to middle and high schools — that is, if they can work out all the kinks.

In John O’Dell’s world history class at Ferris, the five major standards are displayed on large whiteboards: “Standard 2: I can evaluate how individuals and movements have shaped world history.”

State standards have long been used to guide curricula and generate state standardized test questions. But O’Dell’s makes those standards explicit to the student. After all, they’re the metric that separates an A from a C from an F.

“The funny thing is, there’s an illusion that the way we used to do grading is scientific,” says O’Dell. “It sounds good. It’s mathy.”

Yet the numbers didn’t actually show what students knew, O’Dell says. Hard-working students could pass without understanding the material, while students with a very rocky start could fail even though they aced the final.

Today, O’Dell and other Ferris teachers go standard by standard, relying mostly on tests instead of homework, and score students on a scale of 1 to 4. Does the student have good number sense? Can they explain their answers? Does their essay introduction have a compelling hook? The teachers make judgment calls, instead of just relying on a percentage of correct answers on a spreadsheet.

Failing students have chances to turn their grades around completely. They can retake tests they flunked, or find some other way to prove they know the material.

“It gives kids chances to grow. … I think our traditional system has often rewarded quick learners,” O’Dell says. “If a kid writes a terrible essay, let’s go back and fix the essay.”

Tom Rye, a Ferris math teacher, says he spends more time grading, but it’s easier to plan lessons. “I could go on my class rosters and go kid by kid, and I could tell you what they know and they don’t know,” Rye says.

But Paula Korus, an AP world history teacher at North Central High School, wonders how it would work for her. Her course covers 12,000 years of history across Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas and moves far too quickly for perpetual review. “How often do I retest a student?” she asks. “The train is already 50 miles down the track, and I don’t know if I can juggle all the stops.”

That uncertainty is echoed across the district.

At Shaw, a letter went out to parents in November: “The work we do, and the process we go through, will help other middle schools in the district as we expand [standard-based grading] across the city.”

Last year, the district appeared to be moving that way: Tammy Campbell, director of teaching and learning services, led a committee of 94 local teachers, parents and administrators to study the issue. The committee gave a lengthy presentation to the school board, and the board picked Ferris and Shaw to pilot standards-based grading.

But this year, Campbell left the district, her position wasn’t filled, and Shelley Redinger became superintendent. Redinger decided to pause any expansion of standards-based grading.

She’s focused on the the transition to new teacher evaluations and national Common Core curriculum standards. High schools deal with hundreds of state standards — and many of them might soon be out-of-date.

“You can only have so many initiatives on people’s plates,” Redinger says. “We wanted to step back and make sure everything’s going in the right direction.”

The two pilot schools hit considerable bumps. “Not everything is going to go smoothly all the time, and we ask for your patience during this process,” the letter from Shaw stated.

Grading software wasn’t up to code. Pearson PowerSchool was designed for the traditional point-based system, organized by the date of the assignment — ill-fitted for a model tailored to end-of-semester knowledge.

“I have to jury-rig it to make it work,” says Ferris English teacher Jeff Halstead. The district recently received a proposal from a software company for how much it would cost to improve the system.

Other districts throughout the state tried to make a district-wide leap to standards-based grading, but stumbled. At Federal Way Public Schools, the transition spawned protests. A year ago, 100 students walked out of Decatur High School, carrying signs and chanting “no to standards-based.”

In Kennewick, the district teachers’ union filed a grievance, claiming the new middle school grading policy increased teacher workload, violating their contract. Tom Staly, a former teacher in the district, says some teachers saw the system “buffering the bottom,” inflating grades for students who didn’t do the work.

Lori Blehm, a parent in the Kennewick school district, believes that not penalizing students for absences or incomplete assignments — zeroes usually don’t exist in the gradebook, only incompletes — can teach the wrong lessons. She says it happened to her son while he attended Horse Heavens Hills Middle School.

“They didn’t have to do homework. They were supposed to do it, but they weren’t penalized if they didn’t,” Blehm says. “It was unfair to the students — they were developing really bad habits.” Her son stopped doing his homework and had to spend the first semester of high school, she says, getting back his work ethic.

But in Idaho, the wide variety of charter schools has resulted in broad variation. Boise’s Anser Charter School, for example, came up with a solution to the work ethic issue. As it moves toward standards-based grading this year, teachers will grade students on both academic standards and “character standards” like “responsibility” and “compassion.”

In Spokane, O’Dell says when he shifted over to standards-based grading, students didn’t get any lazier.

“I was terrified that some kids wouldn’t do it unless we gave them points,” O’Dell says. “We grossly overestimated the love of points that students have. … There’s this myth that we give a kid an F and thinking that’s going to motivate him.”

Lily Makarov, an eighth-grader at Shaw, says that most students do their work anyway. “There are a few students who slack off, but then they don’t get a good grade on their test,” she says.

Redinger says several Spokane parents are worried the new model may hurt their kids’ college chances, despite assurances of admissions counselors. She assures them that, no matter what, the district won’t get rid of letter grades.

In the last week before winter break, Redinger met with all the middle and high school principals about standards-based grading, confirming that teachers and administrators district-wide are in very different places with standards-based grading. Soon, she says, she’ll publish an official statement assuring them that Spokane isn’t yet ready for a district-wide shift.

“We really haven’t set a timeline up,” Redinger says. “I’m not a fan of having parents and teachers struggle through systems that you don’t have developed.”