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Muskego School Board considers overhaul of grading system

Talk prompted by discrepancies between grades and WKCE scores among some students

Feb. 4, 2013

Muskego - Imagine a world without zeros for not taking tests and no grades on homework.

It might just happen in the Muskego-Norway School District, which is overhauling its entire grading system to get more fairness and consistency. The committee studying grading expects to present its recommendations to the School Board on April 29.

If anyone doubted that things were a little out of whack, they just had to be at a recent Muskego-Norway School Board meeting, where the board learned that 5.5 percent of students who were apparently doing well, getting an A or B in any course over the last two years, actually landed in basic or minimal categories in reading or math on statewide achievement tests.

Schools aim for all students to be proficient or even advanced on the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Exam.

"I thought it would be higher," School Board member Brett Hyde said. "In general, and I'm not thinking of Muskego, there's almost a pressure for teachers to give good grades. … So teachers are more generous than they should be."

On the other side of that coin are a few students, 3.9 percent, who seemed to be having trouble, coming home with a D or even an F in some subject, who actually were advanced in reading or math on the WKCE.

"Anytime the assessments come out with that kind of swing, something is not right," School Board member Lisa Warwick said. "It's a concern that I'm glad we're paying attention to."

Revamping the grading system

Tammy Gibbons, director of school performance, said those results from the committee's research pinpoint the problem well: "They show that evidence in the classroom isn't matching what the students know."

Because teachers began noticing these kinds of discrepancies, the school district last fall undertook the revamping of its entire grading system.

The thrust of the Grading for Learning Committee of parents, teachers, students, principals and administrators is to figure out what is reliable evidence of learning, Gibbons said.

And that might not involve handing out zeros for missed work. Currently, some teachers give zeros for homework or projects not done or tests not taken. Others give grades of incomplete while they work with students to get that work in, Gibbons said.

The inattentive student is lucky to get those teachers, because if they get the teachers who give zeros, they will likely see their grades drop, and in a hurry.

"Zeros can skew everything," Gibbons said.

If a student gets a zero on one test and gets 100 percent on five other tests, he or she will end up with a C grade. And that C grade would not accurately reflect the solid learning that had taken place, as evidenced by the 100 percent the student got on the other tests, Gibbons said.

"Is that really a C student?" she asked. "The problem with zeros is that students can't recover from them."

Under an option the committee is considering, that same scenario could play out but the student would get a more accurate A-minus, rather than a C, Gibbons said. The option the committee is looking into involves replacing zeros with a still-failing grade of 60. Then if a good student misses a test, he or she would get 60 instead of zero. Averaged with the 100s on the other tests, the ending grade would be 93, or an A-minus, Gibbons said.

But Hyde wondered if giving 60s instead of zeros might make it easier for students to slide.

"If a kid does absolutely nothing and is right on the edge of passing … they do a little better on a test and get a B and then they pass," he said. "I'm not sure that's the best way to go."

But Gibbons doubted that scenario would happen. Teachers would not let students get away with doing nothing, she said.

The School Board reaction has been tentative on possibly dropping zeros.

"I appreciate the research and the skewing they have on grades and it's interesting to see what a zero can do," Warwick said. "I'll be interested to hear what the recommendations will be."

Other ideas

Another grading possibility the committee is exploring is replacing letter grades or numbers with something that might mean more to students and parents. It could be some kind of system reflecting four achievement categories like those used on the WKCEs - advanced, proficient, basic or minimal. Some districts have already gone to that, she said.

The committee also has focused on grading homework. Based on research, it is drawing a distinction between homework that is practicing something just learned in school and homework that has a bigger purpose, such as a draft of an essay.

Gibbons said homework that is practice should be risk-free and not be graded, research shows.

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