In Laurie Pennington's science classes at Gunn High School, standards-based grading has tested students' and parents' firm attachment to traditional grades.
This is the fourth year she's used the form of grading that emphasizes students' mastery of prescribed standards over rote learning. The practice is growing in popularity in schools across the country. Pennington believes it's a more equitable, accurate and progressive way of evaluating students who learn in vastly different ways.
While some of her students have welcomed and excelled within this new system, others have balked, Pennington said in an interview with the Weekly. Numerous students, backed by their parents, dropped their science course this year out of frustration with the shift in grading practice, she said.
Pennington, who is also the science department's instructional lead, is among many middle and high school teachers in Palo Alto Unified who have organically started using standards-based grading in their classrooms. She hasn't ditched letter grades, though; students in her classes still receive them as well.
Like students and parents, reaction among teachers is mixed: Some have enthusiastically embraced the shift, including entire departments, while others remain resistant or have urged caution over adopting the new method too quickly. Some schools, primarily Gunn and Greene Middle School, have been moving rapidly towards standards-based grading; Gunn Principal Kathie Laurence said in the fall that she wanted the school as a whole to use standards-based grading by fall 2022. Palo Alto High School's entire world language department uses standards-based grading.
Meanwhile, the district appears to be walking a tightrope between supporting an evolution in grading practices while avoiding the appearance of a top-down mandate to teachers.
The practice is already in place at the elementary schools.
While increasing the number of teachers using standards-based grading is included in Palo Alto Unified's highest level planning document, the PAUSD Promise, the president of the teachers union said it supports "the district's decision to not require standards-based grading and allow for flexibility in the classroom."
"It's organic. It's supported. It's something we'd like to learn more about, but it's not an all-in mandate," Superintendent Don Austin told the Weekly.
"There could potentially be a time when the question isn't, 'Should we go all in?' and the question may be, 'Why aren't we all in?'" he said. "But I don't know how long that's going to take or if it's ever going to happen."
Sharon Ofek, associate superintendent of education services, said the number of teachers using standards-based grading varies from school to school and that "there really is no way to estimate" the total number.
Standards-based learning evolved in response to what proponents see as flaws in the traditional grading system: the conflation of behavior and academics, averaging of scores, high-stakes tests and embedded inequalities that tip the scales toward students with more resources, such as tutors or homework help from parents. In the standards-based model, students are given frequent opportunities to practice and improve, including by retaking tests to address the specific areas in which they're struggling. A student who improves over the course of a class gets credit for that rather than being penalized for poor performance on an early test due to averaging. Homework becomes an optional means for practice rather than points toward a grade.
"In true standards-based grading schools, kids are given lots of opportunities to reach the standards," said Denise Pope, co-founder of Stanford University education-reform Challenge Success, which helps schools implement the grading practice. "You see a much bigger range of kids being successful than just the kids who know how to play the game."
Pennington, who's been a teacher for 32 years, now assesses her students based on a scale of zero to four. Zero means a student has not demonstrated understanding of a skill, even with help; one indicates a student is showing partial understanding; two means a student has a grasp of simpler issues but still makes errors regarding more complex concepts; three denotes that the student meets the standard with no major errors; and four, a student is able to make in-depth inferences that go beyond what is taught in class. Students receive scores in more than 20 categories, from timeliness, independence and perseverance to writing a scientific question and calculating an average.
Instead of testing students by making them define terms on an exam, Pennington lets them use notecards but asks them to use the terms in a way that supports an argument or applies to a concept. When students retake a test, she writes a new, individualized set of problems that focus on the specific areas they're struggling with.
This takes significant time and effort — something other teachers have voiced concern about. Gunn Spanish teacher Liz Matchett, who has piloted standards-based grading in her classes, said at the Jan. 14 Board of Education meeting that she's felt "overwhelmed" by the amount of time it takes to support makeup work.
English teacher Diane Ichikawa said that the district should consider hiring extra tutors or provide teachers with an extra prep period.
"I would urge you to go slowly with this," Marc Igler, Gunn English teacher and teachers union vice president, told the board. "There are some good things about standards-based grading, yet it has many drawbacks. It can confuse students, oftentimes hurting the ones it is most designed to help. It can anger parents, and it's very hard to implement across all academic fields."
(Austin, for his part, said that "for the people that were concerned about the time it takes to reteach, I'd say, 'That's our job.'")
Successful implementation of standards-based grading requires a bottom-up approach and investment in support for teachers, said Joe Feldman, a Bay Area educational consultant and author of "Grading For Equity: What It Is, Why It Matters, and How It Can Transform Schools and Classrooms."
"It requires teachers to work more closely with each other and to define course outcomes more specifically in a way that they haven't been asked to do," Feldman said. "It's an investment by the school that results in changes not just to how we enter information into our grading software but how we function as a learning institution. That can be intimidating — and exciting."
To Pennington, the extra effort that standards-based grading requires is worth it — and is something she even calls a "moral imperative" for the district.
"There are students who have been so discouraged because the education system isn't a system that works for them the way it is now. They feel like they're stupid when they've just really never had the chance to figure out that they could do better," she said. "I think it's our duty, actually, to be able to show that they have success."
But she's encountered pushback from and confusion among students and parents — particularly because she still has to give letter grades for the school's transcripts. (A mix of two's, three's, and four's but mostly two's, for example, is a C in her classes.)
"They're constantly still looking at the letter," Pennington said. "They want to know what the letter is every moment."
Gunn parent Eva Dobrov said that it's stressful for students to be unclear on how the standards-based rubric translates to grades, and not all teachers interpret it in the same way.
"I don't even know what the grades mean," she said at the Jan. 14 board meeting. "The big issue, especially in high school, is transferring that data over to the transcript, which will eventually be seen by colleges."
Pennington agreed that the piecemeal rollout of standards-based grading is challenging for everyone.
Austin, however, said that he's not concerned about the inconsistency, nor does he plan any mandates for adoption of the system.
"There are some things in a district that need to be uniform and consistent all the way through, and some others can go at a different pace and have some space for some organic growth. I think this falls into that (second) category," he said.
At the same time, in his "superintendent's update" email earlier this month, he wrote that "we do not see prescription of a large-scale shift to a new model as viable, practical or universally beneficial at this time."