How to grade a student’s work? Lexington schools try new approaches

Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington.
Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington.

Starting next fall, homework and class participation will no longer be counted in a final grade at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School — and extra credit will no longer be offered.

The changes will occur as a result of the Fayette County Public Schools board on Jan. 9 waiving the district’s traditional grading system for Dunbar to allow it to implement a five-point scale and a “standards-based” system. That’s a system that better reflects whether a student knows the academic standards and has met goals for an academic subject. An example of a standard would be whether a student can identify the central ideas in a text they are reading.

At Dunbar, final grades will generally be based on how well students perform on class tests.

Bryan Station High School is moving toward a similar grading system. Lester Diaz, principal at Frederick Douglass High School that opens in the fall, said he is also considering a system that is “not exactly” the same as Dunbar’s but similar.

“We are still in the design stage and will seek more input as we fill our faculty,” Diaz said. “Standards-based grading is picking up momentum nationwide and has solid research behind it.”

Dunbar Principal Betsy Rains said principals at other Lexington high and middle schools have expressed interest as well.

Rains said some Dunbar teachers are already trying the new grading policy but it will be implemented fully next fall.

“This is not just a strategy or initiative to try and watch then fade away over time,” Rains told school board members. “It’s a structure and a lifestyle change.”

This academic year, homework and daily assignments count for 20 percent; class tests count for 65 percent and the final exam for 15 percent.

In 2017-18, homework won’t count toward the final grade, class tests will count for 80 percent and the class final test 20 percent.

While homework won’t count toward a final grade, students will have to complete homework if they want a chance to retake a test to improve their grade.

In the traditional Fayette County grading scale, 92 to 100 percent is an A; 0 to 64 percent is an F.

Under the new grading system, a student would get a number for each academic standard or learning goal in a class. The number 1 means that a student demonstrates little or no evidence that they have mastered an academic standard.

A 4 would mean a student had mastered an academic standard, and a 5 would indicate advance mastery — that a student understands a subject at a higher level of complexity.

If a student’s average is a 4.0 to a 5.0 on the standards they would receive an A in the class; a 3.0 to a 3.99, a B, and so on.

More than half of the school’s 2,244 students fall into groups in the achievement gap: minority students, low-income students, disabled students, English language learners. More than half of the students at Dunbar qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

“We need a grading system that provides an accurate representation of what the student knows related to the (academic) standards,” Rains said. “We need a grading system that focuses students on learning instead of their grade. We need a grading system that provides teachers with data to make informed instructional decisions.”

Rains said that over the last four years on statewide tests the school has not maintained consistent increases in scores, but it’s not for lack of effort. There are good initiatives and programs at Dunbar and in the school district, she said.

Implementing standards-based grading with a traditional percentage scale is impossible if schools want to move the focus from the grade to the focus on proficiency, Rains said.

“The five-point scale frames everything around how close a student is to proficiency,” she said.

Dunbar teachers started a pilot for the new system a few years ago. This school year, changes were made based on comments from parents, teachers, students and others. Kentucky Department of Education officials are helping Dunbar’s staff with the transition.

“I will admit that I didn’t do enough communication with parents when we started, and it was definitely a mistake, and I have apologized to groups of parents,” Rains said. “This a huge shift. It makes people uncomfortable. It’s not what they are used to. It’s not what they’ve grown up with.”

But as parents are receiving more information, they are becoming more accepting of the new grading policy, she said.

Fayette County School Board Chairwoman Melissa Bacon said at the board meeting she was in favor of the change because in college, students would not get a 100 percent for doing their homework. Board members unanimously voted for the change.

When methods used for years don’t bring the results that students need, Rains said, “then obviously what you are doing isn’t working so you have to take some chances and try something new.”

Valarie Honeycutt Spears: 859-231-3409, @vhspears