Report Card Skirmish: Falcon High School's Standards-Based Grading

What’s in a grade? Strange question, I know. From my perspective, a good report card means praise and, if I’m lucky, a cookie or a new toy. Bad grades mean I get a “talkin’ to” from my parents. Those aren’t all that fun. For my parents, report cards are an important way to track how I’m doing, see where I might be struggling, and quantify my improvements. But do the grades on my report card tell a fully accurate story?

Some districts don’t think so. Across the country, schools and school districts are experimenting with something called standards-based grading. This system of grading ties student grades not to a percentage of points earned in a class, but to competence when it comes to specific standards. Check out the video below for a brief overview of the arguments for standards-based grading.

Sounds pretty good, right? But as with all things related to education, stuff may be more complicated than it seems. While some districts in other states are happy to sing the praises of standards-based grading, a recent Colorado Spring Gazette article indicates that Falcon High School parents in Falcon 49, one of Colorado’s most innovation-minded districts, may not feel the same.

(Falcon High School introduced standards-based grading as part of an innovation plan in the 2012-13 school year. You can read more about the school’s system here.)

The article cites a number of concerns, including a move away from homework, an increasing focus on class- and school-level test results, and lower GPAs. Perhaps most importantly, it points out that some parents find the new system and its related report cards confusing and difficult to interpret.

Falcon isn’t the only district to have tried its hand at standards-based grading. Neighboring D-11 uses a similar system for elementary students, but they haven’t seen the same complaints. The district’s assistant superintendent of instruction, curriculum, and student services, Jason Ter Horst, explains why that might be in the Gazette story:

Colorado Springs School District 11 has used standards-based grading for years in its elementary schools, listing expectations of the standards and where students fall in line with those. But students also receive a traditional report card … The standards-based grading is “an addendum.”

Interesting. The contrast between D-11’s use of standards-based grading and Falcon High School’s use of the same system raises an interesting question: Is this type of grading system more useful as a supplemental tool or a primary metric? That necessarily leads to more questions on how effective competency is measured in classrooms, how results are used to target interventions in practice, and whether those interventions work well in terms of correcting issues. How well does all this support Falcon High School’s innovation plan?

All the while, we’ve got to think about the best way to communicate information clearly and meaningfully to the first line in academic accountability: Parents (the article points out that Falcon is hard at work on this particular conundrum). And, of course, we have to have the obligatory discussion about how this type of system—especially given that it may have the effect of emphasizing tests over homework—fits into the wider debate on testing in Colorado.

I’d be lying if I said I had all the answers to these questions. But hey, at least I’ve given you (and me) something to think about. And sometimes that’s good enough.