Three Fayette schools abandon traditional report cards

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comNovember 2, 2013 

Until this fall, report cards at Lexington's Tates Creek Middle School were traditional, typically full of A's, B's and C's.

Now, as part of a pilot program that dramatically changes grade reporting, the school doesn't provide traditional grades on the report cards anymore.

The new cards using standards-based grading indicate that a C means that a student is "approaching" an academic standard. It might say that students learned about the inside of the Earth in science. Using a scale of 1 through 8, the report might show that students achieved more when they learned about ecosystems than when they learned about energy. The report might show that a student completed assignments and exhibited "academic honesty" but has trouble meeting deadlines.

"Now we feel like we can get a clear picture of who that student is," Tates Creek Middle Principal Eric Thornsbury said. If the report cards show that a student has trouble achieving, teachers have to reflect on the teaching strategy and reteach the content students missed, he said.

"The goal is to give students more feedback," and to give parents a more complete picture of what their child knows, said Kelly Sirginnis, administrative dean at Tates Creek Middle.

Tates Creek Middle, Tates Creek Elementary and Dixie Magnet Elementary are all shifting from a traditional report card. School officials had to get permission from their school's site-based decision-making councils and from the Fayette school board to make the change.

Letter grades are not given to Fayette County students in kindergarten through third grade. Fourth- and fifth-graders do receive letter grades. Tates Creek Elementary has decided to eliminate letter grades for fourth- and fifth-graders in favor of providing information on whether a student has mastered specific academic standards. Principal Julie Wright said parents have been supportive of the new system, but the school will evaluate the change throughout the year.

Dixie Magnet is keeping traditional letter grades in academic classes for fourth- and fifth-graders. But in elective classes, including art and music, third-, fourth- and fifth-graders will post their work on a Web page that they create so teachers can evaluate it and parents can access it, Dixie Principal Tara Isaacs said.

Also at Dixie, the grading system for kindergarten through third grade will change to provide parents more information about their children's learning, including the standards that teachers are using, Isaacs said.

All three schools have communicated with parents about the changes, school officials said.

India Greer, a member of Tates Creek Elementary's site-based decision-making council, said she attended informational sessions on the new report cards. Greer said the new report cards showed the subjects her daughter was "mastering." Greer said she and her daughter have benefited from having a more complete look at the girl's progress.

"I think it's going to help her," Greer said.

Breaking from tradition

The new report cards address how students are faring against the standards they have to meet and provides description about what a student knows and can do.

Thomas Guskey and Gerry Swan, two University of Kentucky researchers known for their work on standards-based grading, are working with Fayette schools. Guskey, a professor of educational psychology, said at least 30 schools in the state were moving toward standards-based grading. He said the UK instructors had worked with schools in Fayette County for three years. UK associate professor Lee Ann Jung is developing more honest and meaningful grades for students who have disabilities, Guskey said.

The educators say standards-based grading is being promoted as a best-practices approach to grade reporting nationwide and worldwide.

"It's being very well received," Guskey said."

Traditional report cards aren't that helpful to parents because they provide a single grade for achievement, homework, punctuality and other factors, without explaining what the student knows, Guskey said. In a traditional grading system, students might not be able show mastery of the standards in the course but might get a good grade because a teacher might factor in a student turning in homework, school officials say.

Guskey said teachers are moving away from the traditional single grade and are giving multiple grades. Instead of giving a single grade for achievement in an English or language arts class, they are giving separate grades for reading, writing and speaking. That way, parents know more clearly what kinds of problems their children might be having.

Getting used to change

High schools in the United States that have moved to standards-based grading are still using letter grades, but they might mean something different than the traditional percentage grade. An A means a student is advanced, a B means he or she is proficient and a C means basic. No Fayette County high school has made that change.

Site-based councils approved the changes at the three schools for the 2013-2014 school year, and many parents were notified over the summer. The district's new chief academic officer, Lu Young, who started on July 1 and was trying to get up to speed on her new gig, said she didn't realize until after the new grading systems were implemented that the schools would have to ask for a waiver from the board members. The schools wanted to move forward with their standards-based grading pilot, focusing more precisely on grade reporting around student performance to standards.

Under the Fayette board policy, site-based decision-making councils are permitted to request waivers of board policy from the board as long as certain criteria are met.

Last week at the Fayette school board meeting, all five members indicated that they would have liked to have been told that schools were changing their grading system before the changes were implemented.

Board members Doug Barnett and Amanda Ferguson voted against giving the schools the waiver. Ferguson was concerned that the new reports already had been distributed. Barnett said he thought it was important for all schools to have consistent grading practices.

Young, in an interview, said that Superintendent Tom Shelton was going to ask the UK professors who had been working with the schools to explain standards-based grading to board members at a future meeting.

She told the board at last week's meeting that the project serves the larger interests of the district as school officials learn how to better assess student learning and report on student progress.

Young, the former superintendent of Jessamine County Schools, said many schools in the Jessamine district, including one high school, are already using standards-based grading.

Shelton said at last week's board meeting that the Fayette district as a whole could move toward standards-based grading, but it will be slower for high schools. Young said high schools switching to standards-based grading have more details to work out. That's in part because high school students are critiqued by colleges on the basis of a grade point average.

District-wide use of standards-based grading is not being mandated in Fayette County, even if it is considered a best practice, Young said.

"Schools will do it at their own pace. Teachers will have to be comfortable, and schools will have to work with families," she said.

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: (859) 231-3409. Twitter: @vhspears.

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