First Bell: Lawrence is not alone in grappling with concerns regarding standards-based grades

Turns out Lawrence isn’t the only place where some folks are upset about the use of standards-based grades in schools.

While opposition in Lawrence is focused on the use of such grades for sixth-graders — new this year to reconfigured middle schools — a district in Washington state is grappling with use of standards-based grades in high school.

That would be in Federal Way, Wash., just northeast of Tacoma.

As described in a story this week by KING-TV, the school district there has injected such grading into its schools for this year. Homework, participation and extra credit aren’t used to help come up with grades; instead, teachers use tests — sometimes taken more than once — to determine what a student knows, rather than what a student has done.

Joshua Garcia, an assistant superintendent for Federal Way Public Schools, told the station: “It says to our families (and) to our students, ‘Here’s the expectations, and we’re going to report to you where your child is in respect to those expectations. So we’re going to have an honest conversation about here is where your child is, and here is where they need to improve.’ “

The story notes that parents, students and some teachers admit being confused about how the new system works and what it means.

“Rumors and misinformation are running amok,” the story says. “Some have heard there are no grades, or that it’s all based on test scores. Both are not true.”

The story includes comments from a student worried that her entire grade would be based only on tests, but the district counters that students can take tests more than once to show that they’ve met the necessary standards — “power standards” established by teachers from throughout the district.

(Here’s a link to the Federal Way district’s explanation of its system.)

“The policy affords students to retake assessments at any time, so if a family wants to get an ‘A,’ they have a right to get an ‘A,’ and they know exactly what they want to do to get that ‘A,’ ” Garcia told the station.

A story about the issue in the Federal Way Mirror notes that more than 100 students had gathered Tuesday at a high school track to protest the system and that “police were called to the scene.”

Officials in the Lawrence school district say that they haven’t conducted any formal discussions regarding the potential use of standards-based grading at Free State or Lawrence high schools. And while they’ve faced plenty of upset parents — and received dozens of letters and emails and phone calls in opposition to the system — they have not had to call in law enforcement for help.

(They’ve also heard from other parents and teachers who appreciate the standards-based system, too. More on that in a future story.)

In recent months district officials have been dealing with complaints from parents and teachers involved with sixth-graders, who this year are receiving both standards-based grades — “S” for successfully meeting standards, “M” for making progress, “T” for being targeted for growth and “E” for excelling consistently — along with typical letter grades: A, B, C, D and F.

Sixth-graders also received such marks last year, as they have been since standards-based grading was introduced in Lawrence elementary schools in 2003.

Parents who object to standards-based grades say the system:

• Drains motivation from students looking to do better, because an “S” is all that teachers expect.

• Adds too much work for teachers, many of whom have not had enough training to properly issue standards-based grades.

• Generates confusion with two different grading systems being used in the same buildings, as seventh- and eighth-graders only receive traditional letter grades.

• Fails to prepare students for the “real world,” a reality in which missing deadlines and performing poorly on tasks carries real consequences instead of a chance to continue retaking tests.

• Etc.

Lawrence school board members plan to discuss the issue later this month or sometime in January, to determine whether to maintain the system as it is, make changes or abandon it entirely at the sixth-grade level.