During the pandemic, teachers, school leaders and district staff in Santa Fe Public Schools noticed a worrying trend. In grades 3 through 12, nearly a third of all students had at least one F. But the troubling failure rates were not necessarily because students weren’t mastering content in their classrooms.

Larry Chavez, superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, said students often passed competency exams at the end of the year, but still received failing grades on their report cards due to things many have long argued should have nothing to do with grades: attendance, participation, and, during remote learning, turning on Zoom cameras. In many cases, “they were failing because of noncompliance,” Chavez concluded.

The situation prompted some soul-searching. Leaders in the school district of 11,000 students and 28 schools dug deep into the vitals of the data, looking at discrepancies in performance on competency exams versus final grades, and investigating the impact of compliance-based factors like talking too much or penalties for Zoom instruction. Along the way, they concluded that there was a much larger issue that needed addressing: The traditional model of grading students didn’t appear to be working well.

This year, Santa Fe Public Schools announced they’ll gradually transition schools to a standards-based grading (SBG) model over the next two to three years. The shift to SBG will represent a significant change for both teachers and students: Students will no longer start the year with an A+ or a 100 percent and see their averages fall as they make mistakes on tests, turn in assignments late or miss them entirely; they’ll no longer lose points due to absences, disruptions in class, or lack of participation in lessons.

Standard-based grading breaks down broad subjects like math into specific learning targets, or standards—“I can multiply multi-digit numbers,” for example—that students are expected to master. Instead of using letter grades or 1 to 100 percentages, the standards-based model calls for 1 through 4 scores that typically change during the year as students develop mastery of a concept. The approach provides teachers, students, and parents with a more nuanced sense of the broad range of skills being worked on, advocates say, and is more transparent than fixed grading strategies.

“What does it mean to have an 89 in math, and what particular area is that number measuring?” asked Vanessa Romero, Deputy Superintendent of Santa Fe Public Schools, reflecting on what the current model obscures. The SBG model, by contrast, spells out the objectives more clearly, encouraging students and teachers to identify and close crucial learning gaps that might persist if they weren’t being assessed on specific skills, Romero asserts—the kind of adjustments that can make the difference between a student who is prepared to move forward, and one who is lost.

AN UNEASY TRUCE

Santa Fe is one of a number of school systems in recent years to trade traditional A’s and F’s for a four point proficiency scale. Proponents of the SBG model, like Maryland school administrator Josh Work, argue that it helps improve the quality of the curriculum and the assessments teachers provide, deepens the way teachers, parents, and students communicate about student performance, and allows students to focus more on mastering concepts and making progress rather than “chasing points” for a final grade.

Veteran educator and school leader Joe Feldman, writing for Phi Delta Kappan, suggests that SBG and similar models also address long standing equity problems in schools that were only exacerbated by the pandemic. Factoring things like participation, attendance, and even behavior into final grades makes them more susceptible to systemic biases, Feldman says, while placing too much emphasis on completing homework can be unfair to students who have fewer supports or resources at home. In some SBG districts, separate “citizenship grades” provide families with a sense of how their students are doing socially and behaviorally, without impacting quarterly or end of semester academic assessments.

Meanwhile the Mastery Transcript Consortium—a network of roughly 350 schools that have agreed to adopt a digital transcript that resembles an online dashboard measuring student progress across a wide range of skills—insists that mastery-based assessment models better prepare students for a competitive job market. Today, the argument goes, employers are less concerned about a high school or college English grade than they are about the employee’s facility with the specific writing skills they need. In Utah, which has the most schools already using the consortium’s transcript, the state legislature has pushed schools to pilot new grading models that they believe will be more equitable for a diverse student body while focusing instruction on “transferable skills necessary for success in the modern world.”

Of the 28 schools in Santa Fe Public Schools, 13 schools will transition to standards-based grading next year. Early College Opportunities High School (ECO), an alternative, trades-based school in the district, is one of two schools already piloting standards-based grading this school year.

Jakob Zgela, a social studies teacher at ECO, told the Santa Fe New Mexican the new grading system compares well to real-world learning. He compares focusing on building proficiency in students to the way doctors build up training to be able to execute a complex surgery; instead of students being judged on the mistakes they made while learning, they are pushed to continue to improve and are recognized for their final results. He admitted the transition for students can be tough—particularly those used to relying on strategies to earn high grades, like taking advantage of extra credit assignments. In the former grading regimen, they might have received an A merely “because they know how to play the game for that class,” Zgela said.

But even as schools across the country are experimenting with new models for assessing students, they aren’t ready to commit to a wholesale divorce from the A to F letter grades that have been around since the 1940s. In fact, many schools and districts that have decided to adopt SBG or similar models, including Santa Fe Public Schools, Spokane Public Schools in Washington, and Poynette School District in Wisconsin, still provide A to F letter grades on transcripts. In Santa Fe, for example, the 1 to 4 proficiency scores and all of the related feedback on how students are progressing toward the mastery of specific skills will be on interim progress reports—but the system will be reverse-engineered and translated back into A to F grades when it comes time to share quarterly report cards and final transcripts.

The same holds true in Spokane Public Schools, according to Heather Bybee, chief academic officer for the district of 54 schools that has used an SBG model for over a decade. “Higher Ed locks us into certain expectations and outcomes,” Bybee said. “If we believe our job as K-12 educators is to open as many doors for our kids as possible for whatever their dream is, then we have to fit those standards.”

THE PAST PUSHES BACK

The concern over whether colleges and universities will understand grades that don’t look like the ones they normally get is one of many that tends to fuel pushback to SBG and similar alternative models of assessment. Other reasons include educators’ unfamiliarity with the new system and concerns that they won’t be given enough training or time, nostalgia from parents over the “old way of doing things” when it comes to grades, and worries from all stakeholders that the shift will compromise rigor and simply make it easier to pass courses.

“This is a practice that has been in place for many, many years,” Superintendent Chavez said, referring to the resilience of traditional grades. “And you know, it’s very easy to continue with the same protocols that you have in place.”

Echoing the concerns of many teachers, Eric Brayden, a 12th grade government, economics, and AP Geography teacher at Capital High School in Santa Fe, said he worries the shift to SBG will create more headaches for teachers without addressing the district’s concern for failing students. Brayden isn’t tied to an A to F grading scale and said he would welcome a 1 to 4 scale if he received more information about the transition. His school is not making the switch until 2023 at the earliest, but after hearing “mixed-reviews” from schools already piloting SBG, he said he would prefer to keep things as they are. Brayden said teachers in the district make incremental progress each year under the current grading model, but that “doesn’t sound great in district newsletters” which he said can lead to a search for “splashy” alternatives. The district’s argument for the change—focusing on proficiency in standards—also sounds off-putting to him. “It carries this insinuation that we are not teaching content based on the standards already.”

When asked about pushback from teachers, Deputy Superintendent Romero agreed that instructors have always had standards to teach to. The change to SBG is not to suggest teachers weren’t doing their jobs before, she said, but rather to make it easier for students and teachers to identify, build up, and master specific skills. Romero also said that there will be plenty of training for teachers and administrators in schools, but added that the program will be rolled out in phases so as not to overwhelm teachers. While some schools will be gearing up to switch by next fall, others will be “playing with the standards” for another year before they get there. “It’s constant and it won’t end next year,” Romero said about the training efforts. “We think it will take a couple of years, just for things to sustain.”

The district is also preparing for pushback from parents. Carmen Gonzales, a member of the Santa Fe Public Schools Board of Education and a former educator, said parents tend to prefer traditional letter grades because they are used to them. She recalled attempting to institute portfolio grading while teaching at a school in Hawaii in the early 1990s. The pushback from parents and teachers was so fierce that the school decided to keep the traditional grading model in place, she said. More recently, parents in Illinois expressed opposition to the removal of letter grades in some districts, forcing a handful to reconsider their approach or come up with report cards that show a mix of standards-based feedback and letter/numeric grades parents are used to.

GOING ALL THE WAY

Despite fears over what kinds of alternative assessments colleges can handle, Mike Flanagan, the CEO of the Mastery Transcript Consortium, said that 200 colleges and universities have already accepted students who submitted alternative transcripts. In 2016, more than 80 colleges and universities—everywhere from Yale to Dartmouth to community colleges—signed formal statements confirming “non-traditional transcripts”, including proficiency-based or competency-based transcripts, will not “disadvantage” students in the admissions process. As long as a school profile accompanying the transcript is “comprehensive and understandable” and clearly explains the “rigor” of the academic program, the technicalities of the school’s assessment and grading system, and the characteristics of the graduating class, “the admissions office will be able to understand the transcript and properly evaluate the strength of a student’s academic record and accomplishments.”

Flanagan applauded Santa Fe’s move to standards based grading. “Any model that gives kids more flexibility, more autonomy, more ways to try something is a good thing.” Although he understands all too well their hesitancy to “go all the way” when it comes to drastically rethinking transcripts, he worries that reverse-engineering grades in that way can ultimately convey misleading information and undermine the competency-based approach to learning. “If you’re really going full in on this competency approach, then a C is not really a C, it’s more like a ‘not yet’,” he said. “So rather than putting A’s and B’s on things and implying we’re doing a traditional model, we actually find it’s just better to rip the Band-Aid off and create something completely different.”

Of course that is easier said than done—particularly for public schools that are governed by state policies and often don’t have the same flexibility that private schools do. Nonetheless, Flanagan believes that grading inequities, as well as an increased focus on how education translates to real-world success, will help create a larger push toward competency-based education models. “What’s going to make higher ed leaders and families and legislators change is the growing disconnect between how much money we’re spending on higher education and the improved job outcomes that kids are not getting as a result of those expenditures,” he said.

Flanagan said that more research points to the issues with traditional assessment models that tend to confuse “speed with quality” and often don’t create space for deep learning. This insight, in tandem with high school graduation rates going in the wrong direction nationwide while spending on K-12 students and college debt climbs, will likely create further shake ups in grading systems nationwide, Flanagan said. “The bigger model will change when everybody realizes, through and through, it’s just not working.”

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