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School changes grading system

Profile image for By Britney Tabor / Staff Writer
By Britney Tabor / Staff Writer

A Denton Independent School District elementary school is no longer issuing numerical averages or letter grades to students on report cards or schoolwork.

At the start of the 2012-13 school year, Hawk Elementary School became the only Denton ISD campus exclusively piloting a standards-based reporting system school wide. Currently, throughout the district, standards-based report cards are distributed in grades kindergarten through second grade. There’s a plan to extend the model to all elementary grade levels within the next several years, according to district officials.

At Hawk Elementary, the reporting model has caused “a paradigm shift of sorts,” said Principal Susannah O’Bara.

“This tool articulates exactly what a child knows and doesn’t know, whereas a traditional report card shows an average that doesn’t articulate what skills were learned to support that,” she said.

Launched at Hawk in the 2011-12 school year, the standards-based report card was distributed to students in second through fifth grades as a supplement with traditional report cards. In April 2012, the Denton school board voted 7-0 to pilot the standards based reporting system at Hawk beginning with the 2012-13 year in lieu of the district’s traditional grading system.

More than six years ago, campus staff members began to discuss what they wanted students to know, how to determine if students have learned the material and what follow-up action staff members should take, O’Bara said.

A lot of research was conducted, and among the research done was how using assessments would help students learn more, she said. She said staff members realized through their research that numerical grades didn’t report if a child had mastered a specific learning target or not. The research, she said, proved this was the direction to take.

“At that point we . . . didn’t feel like we could go back on it. We couldn’t unlearn what we had learned,” O’Bara said. “We can’t unlearn what we have found to be good for kids.”

More than three years ago, the school stopped issuing numerical grades on homework and looked at it as an independent practice, O’Bara said. Instead of numerical grades, teachers wrote feedback on homework assignments so that students learned if they understood the homework and the areas where they might need improvement. Student mastery of a content area was also indicated by a series of scores or rubrics.

Rubrics for reading and math problem solving, O’Bara said, are created by kindergarten through fifth-grade teams, and the same rubrics are utilized across grade levels. Other rubrics are created based on reading and research conducted by the staff and student input and written by teams of teachers across grade levels, O’Bara said.

Other districts interested in offering similar standards-based reporting models have visited and contacted Hawk Elementary to inquire about the impact the model has had on the campus. The model used at Hawk was presented at last year’s Texas Association of School Administrators Mid-Winter conference, O’Bara said.

Listed on students’ report cards at Hawk are the essential skills a student must learn to advance to the next grade. Students are rated on their knowledge of those skills dependent on the six weeks in which the material is taught. Ratings range from 1 to 3 for students in kindergarten through second grade, and 1 to 4 for students in third through fourth grade.

Ratings are: 1, insufficient progress; 2, making progress; and 3, meets expectation. A rating of 4 in grades three, four and five identifies a student who has exceeded expectations. Teachers also report student behavior, just as they do on traditional report cards.

At the midway point of a six-week period, “target binders” are sent home with students, O’Bara said. Inside the binders are tabs for each content area and assessments taken by students. Along with those assessments are rubrics articulating a student’s understanding of a particular skill they were assessed on. Parents must sign that they’ve viewed the binders, O’Bara said.

Standards-based reporting, she said, has allowed Hawk Elementary staff members to create “clear learning paths” for each student.

“We know exactly where they are, and we have a record of exactly what their work looks like as evidence to demonstrate their mastery,” she said.

Hawk Elementary is one of many school districts across the country that has adopted a standards-based reporting system.

DeEtta Culbertson, a spokeswoman with the Texas Education Agency, said that decisions about the type of report cards used in Texas schools are made at the local level.

It’s unknown how many Texas school districts have implemented the model, but an online search of standards-based report cards in Texas revealed that the program is being used for kindergarten and first-grade students in the Birdville ISD, in pre-kindergarten 3 through first grade in the Arlington ISD, in kindergarten through second grades in the Round Rock and Carroll school districts and in kindergarten at the Waxahachie ISD.

Karen Humphreys-Helm, whose two children are in kindergarten and third grade at Hawk Elementary, said she’s found the reporting offers parents a clear picture as to what’s taking place in the classroom and what parents need to work on with their children at home.

She recalled a conference last school year where she and her husband were able to view one of their son’s grades in both numerical and standards-based form. Helm said that while a numerical grade showed her child had earned a grade in the high 90s, it didn’t indicate what her child had learned to earn the particular grade.

The standards-based report made more sense, she said.

Helm said “it’s not just to be progressive” but it teaches children to understand what they’re learning and how to be accountable for that learning. She said it also charges teachers and parents to be accountable for what a child knows and does not know.

While accepted by some, not all have welcomed the change in how student performance is reported.

“It’s a hard shift, and I’m not going to suggest everyone’s happy with it because there are people that are frustrated or it’s not what we’re used to,” O’Bara said.

The new system has increased accountability for everyone involved, she said.

“They [students] have to demonstrate they’ve truly learned a concept, and by doing it the way we’ve done it, we’ve made every child accountable for their learning and every teacher accountable for a child’s learning and me accountable for every teacher knowing,” O’Bara said. “Accountability has really increased with this.”

At the district level, a standards-based reporting model is being created this year for third-graders, which will be used in the 2013-14 year. Work on creation of a district-wide standards-based report card for fourth-graders will begin next year, said Mike Mattingly, the district’s assistant superintendent for curriculum, instruction and staff development. Kindergarten through fifth grade will be the focus for the standards-based reporting, he said.

The model is based on the essential skills the state says a student must know or understand before advancing to the next grade level, he said. The model provides parents a broader understanding of what their child knows, what they struggle with, and it also allows parents to see their child’s progress over the course of the year, Mattingly said.

O’Bara said it’s her staff’s goal, through use of the standards-based reporting, to help children understand their role as a participant in the learning process and to help them embrace learning. She said they want their students to leave for secondary school prepared and with confidence that their role is to do their best and that the numerical grade won’t matter as much.

“In our world ... college and career ready is our goal, and if we just continue the way things were when we were in school, we’re preparing them for a world we graduated high school in, and the truth is, we can’t even fathom what’s going to happen when these kindergarteners are 18,” O’Bara said. “They have to be critical learners, and they have to be responsible for their learning.”

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876. Her e-mail address is .

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