Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Grade Change: Moving a School Culture Forward

Recently Jeff Fiscina, one of my math teachers, submitted a guest post on my blog that emphasized some of his grading practices that best support and promote student learning.  That post got me thinking about the process we went through to assist Jeff in developing and embracing his current grading practices as well as that of other teachers.  It was about a year ago that I decided to tackle the grading culture here at New Milford High School, which wasn't much different than the majority of schools across this country.  Any administrator that has moved to change long embedded grading philosophies and practices knows full well how difficult this change process is. However, it was apparent that current behaviors and actions had to be changed based upon the latest research and what was best for our students.  

Image credit:

When I initially broke the news to my staff about the journey we were about to take to change the grading culture it was met with a great deal of skepticism, questions, and resentment.  Like I said earlier, change in this area is extremely difficult.  During the initial conversations I presented the work of Douglas Reeves, Rick Wormelli, and others to serve as a foundation for this systematic change.  The conversation focused on some difficult questions such as what does a letter grade actually mean and how do you measure student learning.  After some initial focus on where we currently were as a school and where we really needed to begin moving towards I asked for volunteers to sit on a committee to help establish new grading guidelines and support structures that focused on student learning. It should be noted, however, that some components of this new philosophy were non-negotiable because if everything was then the change we were looking to implement and desperately needed would never occur. This was probably the most difficult part of the change process in terms of staff embracement. 

The purpose of this post is not get get into the nitty gritty about grading reform as this has been well chronicled by practitioners that I greatly admire such as Joe Bower.  My purpose here is to illustrate how my staff and I addressed a broken component of our school culture and improved it.  Is our current philosophy and associated grading practices perfect? Of course not, but the change that was initiated is much more aligned with the learning needs of our students.  The new philosophy is now an expectation for all. Below is the grading philosophy that was created and adopted at the end of last year.  I encourage and look forward to any comments or reflective feedback that you might have.

Grading Philosophy

No zeros: Students should not be assigned a grade of zero (0).  This not only reflects grading as punishment, but also creates a hole that students cannot dig out of (Gusskey, 2000, Reeves, 2004, Reeves, 2008, O’Conner and Wormeli, 2011).  This includes HW, quizzes, tests, projects, etc.  An exception to this would be cases that involved cheating, plagiarism, or a midterm/final exams no show.

Multiple forms of formal assessment: Marking period grades have to be comprised of multiple forms of assessment.  We need to avoid the “marking period killer” assignment, which is one project, test, or other assignment that will make or break a student’s grade (Reeves, 2008).

Failure floor:  As per HS grading practices detailed in the current student handbook, a 64 or below is failing.  As a result, all failing grades should be entered between the ranges of 50 – 64 in PowerSchool.  Any grade 64 or below is a variation of an “F”, which indicates that the student has not met basic standards for learning (O’Conner & Wormeli, 2011). A failure floor of 50 has been established (lowest score inputted into PowerSchool for quarter, midterm, and final exam grades).  This allows students to recover from a poor quarter and/or midterm exam grade and gives him/her the appropriate motivation to complete the course successfully.  If a student fails your class you will be asked to provide the following:

  • Evidence that is appropriately documented on the progress report.
  • Documented contact (email, phone) with the parent/guardian no later than midway through the marking period. If contact cannot be made (disconnected phone, no answer/response) notify main office so we can update information in PowerSchool.
  • Extra help (sign-in sheet) attendance logs.  This should contain dates, printed student names, and actual student signatures.
  • Evidence of a face-to-face meeting with the parents/guardians and guidance counselor. The teacher and guidance counselor must schedule this.
  • Evidence of an improvement plan (re-takes, alternate assignments, other indicators that measure learning).
  • Determination of whether or not the student(s) is in crisis and using this information to work with him/her in a different way.  If this is the case submit a referral to the I&RS team.
  • Documented use of the Change in Progress form if a student begins to struggle academically after progress reports.

Retests: Student success in that they have mastered the concepts and are able to apply what they have learned is of utmost importance.  Giving students a second chance on a test provides them with yet another opportunity to demonstrate learning.   It is up to the teacher to determine if a student warrants a retest.


  1. Very thoughtful as always. We are in the midst of grading change at our school as well, and I met after school today with several teachers who are piloting new grading systems. Change is hard but I believe that this is helping us refocus on student learning as the chief aim of an assessment and grading system. we're discussing pros and cons and working out the kinks. Some of the detail you up included here is very instructive.

  2. I am not sure of the student demographics at your school but what if a student does not complete a few assignments? Do you still put a 50 in Power School? Our school tried this policy and found that students would do assignments that were easier or group assignments and then shut down if the assignment was too difficult. Usually, because of the 50's, students would pass a class without much evidence of standards mastery. How can this problem be addressed and how will you address it?

  3. Alicia - Demographics wise we are a diverse blue-collar community. If a student does not complete assignments the expectation is that parents are notified as stated above and the student is given a reasonable amount of time to make them up. If they still do not complete them all of the 7 steps in our philosophy have been met then yes the lowest grad inputted into PowerSchool is a 50. In our eyes and F is now and F and out focus has to be on working with that student(s) to demonstrate growth in learning. In regards to your second question I can honestly say that we have not experienced this yet. We are working to transform our culture to address the issues/concerns you have stated. To be honest I don't even know how many of our students know about this grading shift. The key here is the major assessments (tests, projects) that demonstrate conceptual mastery. We have drastically reduced the number of failing grades, increased our graduation rate from 93 to 97%, and increased our AP scores (3 or higher) from 46 to 72%. This is still very much a work in progress.

    1. I think it is wonderful to make sure students have a fighting chance to pass, and this type of policy may work for other schools; however, our students could not handle this approach. Many teachers felt this was unethical - when I give a 50 to a student who has not completed an assignment, I am showing evidence of the students mastery of a standard, or concept - for example, paraphrasing. If the student has not shown me any ability to paraphrase, should I say - by awarding him or her with a 50- that the student is almost "there" and with a little hard work, can get there? I'm uncertain of the correct answer, so I wait until the end of our 9-week semester to replace those 0's with 60's. I also give the kids every chance to make up any work missed. I hope this goes well for your school. No matter your feelings on the issue of grading, if it leads to success for the students, then that is all that matters!

  4. Thanks for posting your grading philosophy. I’ve been grappling with grading for my entire career. While my school doesn’t have a comprehensive policy, we’ve agreed that for end of term grades there is to be no grade lower than a 55 and “passing” is a 70. In addition, final exams count for 15% of the trimester grade. In my own classroom, I’ve moved towards 15% for formative assessment items (homework, quizzes, day to day in class assignments) which gives students day to day space to question, make mistakes, relearn, and work towards the course enduring understandings. Summative assessments (major projects, unit tests, papers, etc.) that build off of the formative assessments are 70% of the grade. This is where student synthesize, evaluate, and apply the learning developed through the formative assessments. The remaining 15% is the final exam. I still give “0-missing” grades. We do need to enter those into our MMS grading system as parents want to know what their child has done and not done. I do accept late work until the end of a given unit and update zero grades if the work is submitted. The majority of students do complete their work and the few students with numerous zeros have significant challenges that are addressed through our Educational Support Team, parent/teacher meetings, ongoing documentation, etc. Unfortunately, my colleagues are all over the place in how they approach grading and use the online grading portal. It is frustrating for students and parents to check the portal and find that no grades are entered until the mid or end of term. Some of my colleagues haven’t yet adapted to parents and students having access to the formerly secret teacher gradebook. Do you have expectations for teacher/student/and parent use of Power School? Have teachers been resistant to using it?

  5. In my more recent experience I find that starting the conversation about moving forward with a focus on grades, the conversation doesn't move away from numbers, %s and grade calculations. If we are really serious about changing student learning and a cultural shift the way we get to a number has to change, and the assignments we assign can't be about how many marks you can get out of 10. An attempt to move away from numbers based, grade generators such as PowerSchool is needed. We need to give our students more authentic, project based assignments that are assessed using performance standards. The conversation about numbers needs to shift away from what students "got" to what they have "learned." See an alternative at . Ultimately I am happy to see that another school is moving to make their assessment data more accurately reflect student performance and support student success.

    1. Jonathan - Many of the students I work with are unmotivated to complete assignments outside of school. I was curious whether in your experience self-assessment has helped increase homework participation rates.

  6. Kirsten - we are in the process of establishing District guidelines for PowerSchool that will go into effect come September. However, we have already established some guidelines at the high school. After and assignment is given (homework, quiz, text, etc) the teacher has a week to input it into PowerSchool. For essays/papers and more lengthy projects there is a two week window. The teachers have not ben resistant to this at all as we have been preparing them for over a year.

    Jonathan - I am extremely impressed with what you have been able to do, especially empowering students to self-assess and allowing them to show you what they know. My question for you is has the rest of your colleagues/administration embraced this shift? If so is this system-wide? If not why is this the case?

  7. What about a greater focus on written feedback and ways, in which a student can improve their grade? Even feedback for a high grade is important, because a student should have an understanding of why their work has improved.

  8. I first heard of the concept of no zeroes back in 2004, and I don't like it, primarily for two reasons.

    First, students are assigned credit for doing something they didn't do. I think it contributes to the underlying concept in the millennial generation that I'm entitled to results without the requisite effort to achieve said result. If I were a low-achieving student in a particular area, one who was likely to demonstrate a lack of mastery, would I kill myself studying for a test only to get a 54 or should I do nothing, alleviate my stress, and take the 50? Additionally, how do you differentiate the efforts of two students who choose those respective paths?

    Second, it creates some wonky math. Let's say that homework was ten percent of my grade. I'm an excellent student who nails quizzes, exams, and projects. I just hate staying up all night doing your work. So I don't. I get an A on the other parts, get half credit on the hw, and still get an A for the course.

    This really works for the intrinsically motivated student, but how do you cope with the rest?

    1. Theo, I do agree with your point about earning a grade without effort. I also agree with allowing students to re-test. What are your thoughts on re-testing?

      I feel that re-testing allows a student to master an objective. If the student has the opportunity to earn a passing grade, then they will be motivated to re-test.

      I was also thinking about creating instruction, which intrinsically motivates students. Have you ever utilized a choices board project?

  9. Theo, I also didn't like the thought of no zeros the first time I heard of the concept. Then I truly thought about it, and the situation you gave was one that was close to an example I thought about. If the student does not do any of the HW, even if it is 10% of their grade, the best they are going to get is a 90%. And that is if they get a 100% on everything else. Is this possible, yes. Is it likely, no. My thoughts...if a student can get between a 95 and 100 on everything other than HW and not do any HW at all, why don't they earn that 90%? They obviously showed mastery of the content. They just didn't do the work in between the assessments. That doesn't mean they didn't pay attention and learn during class discussions. It just shows that they don't do HW. And honestly, in college I was never asked to turn in a HW assignment in any class that was not a project, a paper, or a lab write up.

    The question is whether a teacher can accept the fact that some students do not HAVE to do their HW in order to learn and understand the content being delivered.