School testing

Addressing a system that’s been around for 100 years is a behemoth of a task, according to Norfolk Public Schools administrators.

As the district continues to implement target-based grading across its schools, Superintendent Dr. Jami Jo Thompson is inviting the public to provide feedback.

Earlier this week, Thompson sent a letter to parents saying administrators would be convening a committee of parents, teachers, students, counselors and administrators to provide perspective on implementing target-based grading, which would then shape the strategic action planning committee’s actions moving forward.

“I want you to know that we are in the process of reviewing and evaluating our grading process and that we are taking your feedback into consideration as we do that,” she wrote.

Thompson said the decision was made based on an informational session at the high school on Oct. 23, where about 80 parents and staff members asked questions and shared concerns.

Target-based grading, also known as standards-based grading, is a system of instruction that uses a scale of 1 to 4 and focuses on students demonstrating an understanding of the knowledge and skills required of a course. While homework is an important component of learning, the test scores alone are used to determine their grade, and tests may be retaken if a student is not satisfied with his or her grade, Thompson said.

The district is moving toward this system because research shows that it is a more effective learning model for students, she said. It is also a way for educators to address inconsistencies in grading practices and discrepancies between student performance and ACT scores.

“We know that research shows that standards-based grading results in higher levels of learning for students. It will improve student achievement. It’s what’s best for kids,” she said. “And that’s our primary reason right there.”

The efforts started as a part of a strategic action plan set two years ago, which says the district will implement target-based instruction and grading as an integral part of the teaching and learning process by fall 2021.

District educators have been doing a lot of work “behind the scenes” to prepare for target-based instruction, including creating proficiency scales, Thompson said. In addition, the district used a consultant to go over processes and systems during this time.

This school year, a pilot program of the system has been launched for a few subjects and grade areas, as well as the policy of homework not counting toward the final grade district-wide. Thompson said administrators wanted to see how the system would work before completely implementing it across the district.

The feedback Thompson has received includes questions about the assessment scale as well as teacher workload.

Parent Tracy Yost said she’s seen target-based grading play out at various levels because her three children — Charles, Lucille and Ryan — are in sixth, eighth and 10th grades, respectively. She said her students do well in school, but they’ve been more stressed about taking tests since their entire grade consists of test scores.

“I see them a little bit more stressed as far as the test taking, because if they get a test grade that’s not so good, they strive to keep their grades at that level, so they’ll be retaking it,” she said. “Just the strain it puts on them to know the tests are what’s basically scored, that’s it.”

Tracy Yost has talked with teachers and parents about the changes and has heard about other students who aren’t adjusting as well. Some have lost motivation to do homework since it’s not graded, for example.

“I’m glad to see my kids are still focused on their homework, but there’s a lot that not might be. What they’re taught now is it doesn’t really count,” she said. “The only thing that’s really counting is their test scores. … I’ve talked to other parents where their kids are coming home crying and upset, and it’s really an anxiety and stress on them.”

Thompson said it can be difficult for students to adjust to the system of target-based grading at first, and that the reassessment process requires students to do homework before retaking tests.

“Typically, schools that have already done this find there’s an issue with homework completion at the beginning until the student sees that, ‘Gee, if I don’t do homework, I don’t get a good grade on the test. I need to do that homework.’ ”

Of Tracy Yost’s children, she said her high school student is the least enthusiastic about the prospect of switching to target-based grading, because the system doesn’t convert uniformly into a GPA like the traditional grading scale does. This makes it more difficult to apply for college, since one of the main requirements looked at is GPA, she said.

“I know (colleges) focus on other things — he’s in football, he’s in band, he’s a (Boy) Scout — he’s got a very good, well-rounded personality,” she said. “He’ll be able to do what he wants, but is this going to inhibit some of his choices?”

Thompson said the students’ grades, which will grade from 0 to 4, will be converted to a 4.0 GPA scale for the college admission process. Some colleges convert grades themselves, while others accept a converted scale. The high school will continue to have class rank, as well as a valedictorian and salutatorian.

Tracy Yost said she’s researched standards-based grading and seen its merits but said she wonders why the benefits can’t be incorporated into the current grading system.

“What was wrong with the old system? If somebody missed the division on the test, we could work with them just the same with the current grading system,” she said.

Thompson said parents are encouraged to reach out to administrators if they have any questions or concerns about the process.

“We have had a lot of one-on-one conversations, and that’s where we have the best results,” she said. “We are listening to feedback, we’re going to put this committee together, we’re going to reflect and see what changes need to be made to make this process better. Our goal is higher levels of learning for students.”

The timeline moving forward is based on when the new committee will provide feedback, and it could take a few years to fully implement the system, Thompson said. The district also is looking at a few other consultants to learn more about standards-based grading on a national scale.

In Nebraska, numerous schools have implemented a standards-based approach at the elementary level, including public school districts in North Platte, Scottsbluff, Lincoln and Fremont. At the high school level, Omaha and South Sioux City public schools have implemented standards-based grading.

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