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DISD set to change grading system

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

The Denton school district is changing its grading system in secondary schools by moving to a nine-week grading period with less emphasis on homework and extra credit assignments.

The new system, which is set to begin in the fall, instead will base student grades on such work as final drafts, efforts made, tests, quizzes and projects. Students will not be penalized in their grades for poor behavior, late work or for missing or incomplete work, officials said.

The grading practices are administrative regulations and do not require board approval, according to Superintendent Jamie Wilson.

Officials said the new system will focus on what students are learning and help them take responsibility for their education.

“The new grading procedures recommended are really about ensuring students master the material they’re being taught,” Vicky Christenson, the school district’s director of secondary curriculum, instruction and staff development, told school board members at a meeting Tuesday. “Ultimately we want our students to take ownership of their learning and be in charge of that.”

Portions of the new system will be phased in over the next school year for sixth- through 12th-graders, with all the components in place for 2015-16, according to district officials.

School board President Charles Stafford said he supports the new grading practices.

“I’m very proud of the staff for being so creative in improving on an old model, making it better,” he said. “This is going to inspire kids to be more self-responsible, more personally responsible. I think it’s got great potential.”

Board member Rudy Rodriguez said he sees a shift from “testing and teaching to the test to the child being the central focus.”


Mixed reaction

The new system drew a mixed reaction from teacher and parent groups. Local parents and teachers said they support the new plan, but statewide teacher organizations said it appears to restrict teachers’ control over their classrooms.

Michelle Duesman, president of the Denton Community Council of PTAs, said she supports the new grading practices but knows there will be some parents who may not be “crazy about” the idea.

“This kind of assessment is probably going to be more accurate of what students are learning,” Duesman said. “I agree with that policy. It gives students opportunities to continue with their learning.”

Brock Gregg, governmental relations director for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said that the new system may violate the spirit of state laws that spell out school district grading policies, although he said he believes the “academic philosophy” behind Denton’s new system is sound.

“The [state] law was really passed to give teachers more authority to manage their students’ grades and behavior, and this policy seems to take away some of those tools,” Gregg said. “It will be interesting to see how teachers react to this policy.”

Lonnie Hollingsworth, director of legal services for the Texas Classroom Teachers Association, said the practices appear “prescriptive” and he, too, questions the legality of some of the provisions.

“I think that a better grading policy would be less prescriptive and leave more discretion and judgment to the individual teachers,” he said.


New provisions

Students will receive feedback and encouragement to improve rather than getting numerical grades for work done while they are still learning.

Among the provisions:

Student grades will not be lowered for poor behavior, such as inaccurate headings, lack of neatness or attendance, or improved for good behavior, such as attitude, bringing supplies or materials to class or returning a progress report.

Students will not be penalized for failing to meet deadlines.

A student will not receive a zero for missing or incomplete work. Students will receive a zero when there’s evidence that no actual learning is taking place, according to a district official.

With the exclusion of semester exams, students will have opportunities to redo quizzes, tests and research papers if they make a case that they have made improvement. Students would not be penalized for poor scores on the first attempt. They can make a case for reassessment by going to a tutor, meeting with the teacher or doing alternative assignments.

Assignments will include references to educational standards, so parents can understand the concepts being taught.

Christenson said the new system will help students learn the material without having to worry about poor grades.

“We know that errors are inherent in the learning process, and so we have to [allow them] to make mistakes, learn from those mistakes and get feedback from the teacher,” Christenson said.


Testing the new system

The new system was devised over two years by the school district’s secondary academic leadership team, with input from the district’s curriculum, instruction and staff development department.

The academic leadership team is made up of secondary department chairpersons.

Teachers were involved in the process, officials said. Some teachers tested some of the practices in their classrooms and returned with feedback, and 450 teachers responded to a survey on current grading practices and whether they would support the new practices.

District staff researched grading procedures in place at comparable school districts locally, across the state and nationwide.

Christenson said no district was found with a system similar to the one that Denton is putting in place, but she said there are districts that are taking new looks at grading and how to assess students.

Two questions at the core of the research done was whether grades accurately represented a student’s mastery of a concept, and whether the grading practices build students’ confidence in learning, officials said.

Mike Mattingly, the district’s assistant superintendent of curriculum, instruction and staff development, said students at the secondary level still will receive traditional report cards with numerical grades, in part because the University Interscholastic League requires them for participation.

Stephen Shade, world languages department chairman at Guyer High School, is on the team that worked to bring about the new grading practices.

He said he tested some of the practices in his classes and said the system “worked out very well.” He said it gives teachers more time to teach versus grading.

“They won’t have as many things to grade, but what they are grading is more meaningful and hopefully more meaningful for the students,” he said.

Stephanie Nicewarner, math department chairwoman at Denton High School, also tested the practices in her classes. She said the new system shifts the focus to learning, and found that students were not coming back to her asking, “Is this for a grade?”

She said students began asking for help on concepts that they didn’t understand instead of simply trying to improve their grade on a particular assignment.

Clay Robison, public affairs specialist for the Texas State Teachers Association in Austin, said the association doesn’t have a position on the grading practices the Denton school district intends to implement in its secondary schools but appreciates the innovation in doing something to help students learn.

“Time will tell if it works or not,” he said. “It looks like an interesting approach and it will take time to see if it will work. We certainly wish them the best and hope it works.”

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.