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Making the Grade: When Do Kids Deserve A's?

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Changing Course

In an effort to bring report cards into line with the new goals of education—identifying which kids are learning, and how much—many schools are switching to standards-based or mastery grading. All states now mandate that schools teach certain curriculums—and 45 have begun implementing a national list of education standards known as Common Core. "Schools are realizing if you don't have standards-based grading, you can't measure—or communicate—how well students are learning the material, as opposed to merely being exposed to it," says Ken O'Connor, author of A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades (Allyn & Bacon). Most of the new programs work this way: Homework doesn't count toward the main "knowledge" grade, which is determined primarily by scores on end-of-unit tests, and a separate mark is given for work habits and more subjective measures like attitude, effort and citizenship. The key, says Guskey, is to separate the product (what kids learn) from the process (their attitude and ability to function smoothly in the classroom). Either of those skill sets might require improvement, but teachers, parents and students can zero in on what needs work only if the two are evaluated separately.

Switching to the mastery method, though, can be trying. In a 2010 survey of six school districts by education researchers at the University of Kentucky, teachers reported that it demands more focus and effort. The main grade is not based on "impressions" teachers have of students but must be grounded in test data and carefully calculated. After a school district in Potsdam, New York, changed its formula to one under which homework counts for only 10% of grades, 175 parents and community members signed a petition in protest, saying the new system encouraged laziness. In the real world, they argued, effort counts.

When Kentucky's Oldham County school district started standards-based grading, parents were concerned when they saw their kids' marks drop. And some students who were heavily involved in athletic programs found they had to shift tactics to keep their grades up so they would remain eligible to play sports. In the past, they might have simply handed in an extra-credit assignment to buoy a flagging grade, but under the new system they had to buckle down and study in order to do well on classroom exams.

Fortunately, though, most schools with standards-based grading allow students to retake tests. The point is to master the material, and not necessarily on the first try. "We heard from parents who didn't think it was fair when their kid got an A right off the bat while a neighbor's kid got one after retaking an exam," says Anita Davis. "We realize that all children do not learn at the same rate. What we do expect—and insist on—is that they all learn."