Eleven community members made their opinions known about target-based grading at the Norfolk Public Schools board of education regular monthly meeting on Monday night.
Among their concerns were keeping students motivated, challenging and supporting high achievers, setting students up to be successful after graduation and making sure college applicants would be able to compete for scholarships under target-based grading.
During a study session that preceded the meeting, NPS administrators and board members discussed target-based grading and its implementation in the district.
High school principal Derek Ippensen said the previous grading and assessment practices contained many inconsistencies and did not accurately reflect student learning. Data show that secondary achievement scores are below state average.
“What we’re learning as we look at this data is that the traditional grading practices including homework and behavior to a disproportionate degree is skewing scores, so we’re not able to accurately predict their performance," he said. "What we’ve started to do is look very specifically at ACT standards, that our standards and the material we’re teaching is directly aligned to the ACT.”
Jami Jo Thompson, superintendent of schools, cited a study of more than 2,300 students in 11 schools indicating that standards-based grading resulted in more students receiving high grades and a stronger correlation between their grades and results on the state assessment.
Target-based grading has been implemented as a pilot program in the district this fall in some grades and classes. Some feedback provided by students and parents during the target-based grading pilot program has caused administrators to reevaluate the system. They will be forming a committee of parents, teachers, students, counselors and administrators to provide their perspective on how to best make the system work in the district.
Adam Gamerl, a junior at Norfolk High, said he previously attended an elementary school in Omaha that used standards-based grading, which made sense for lower grade levels with simpler concepts. However, since the pilot program has started, he’s seen less motivation among students to complete and even understand the work. He questioned why administrators were trying to change a system that had been fine before and urged them to go back to the previous system.
“It’s frustrating for me and everyone else. I haven’t talked to anyone who likes it,” he said. “I don’t want to be a guinea pig in this whole thing. I just want to have a normal education.”
Carter Hattery, also a junior at NHS, agreed and said target-based grading is too focused on test-taking.
“Tests are given too much power. This system is concerned too much about tests,” he said. “… People don’t like the system at all. It’s hurting teachers, too.”
Kami Merkel, who has children in different grade levels, said target-based grading isn’t helping students develop strong study habits.
“As a parent, I want them to be successful and prepared for real life,” she said. “I have directly been able to see a negative impact. I am not the only one. I do not want this new grading system to have that kind of impact.”
Board members also sounded off, including Bob Waite, who said basing a grade on so few scores seems “inappropriate” to him. Waite said he voted on changing the grading system because he thinks it should be addressed to become more effective and consistent, but such changes should be implemented slowly and carefully.
“We need more grades put in that we can actually test the kids on. ... I think that penalizes them. It isn’t just the grade they get, but there are all sorts of other social things that go along with it,” he said. “... I think we moved just a little too fast and haven’t made a good picture of what those are.”
Beth Nelson, director of teaching and learning, clarified some points about the multifaceted plan in the study session, including that decisions about not grading homework were made as part of a separate but connected effort.
“Homework is being evaluated and students are being given feedback on performance. It is considered practice. And research clearly indicates that including homework/practice in a course grade can artificially inflate or deflate the grade,” she said. “The practice of learning should not impact the student’s grade.”
Student transcripts also have necessary information for college and scholarship applications under the target-based grading system, she said.
Moving forward, Thompson said, district administrators will form a committee, create a four-point conversion scale for the 2020-21 school year, consider the possibility of using homework and/or quizzes as a small part of students’ grades, revise the implementation plan and timeline to allow a slower transition to the junior and senior high schools and take the committee’s recommendations to the strategic action planning committee for consideration. She outlined a proposed potential timeline that has a gradual rollout from now until 2023-24.
“We would like to continue the target-based grading pilot as is for second semester but slow down future expansion, particularly at the senior high level,” Thompson said. “This would allow our new target-based grading committee to take their time developing the four-point conversion chart and revised timeline. It would also allow us to take these recommendations back to the original target-based grading strategic action planning committee for consideration, so they could make a final recommendation regarding revisions to the board.”
Public comments at board of education meetings are limited to five minutes and board members cannot comment on them unless a member of the public contacts the district central administration office ahead of time and requests for an agenda item to be added. However, president Sandy Wolfe assured parents that their voices were heard and would be taken into consideration. Thompson also encouraged parents who couldn’t share the full comment they’d prepared to email administrators to have their feedback submitted to the target-based grading committee.