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Reeves: Wholesale Revamping of Student Grading a Hot Button But Needed Measure

A 100-point grading scale is confusing, and for students who lag in completing assignments, it’s downright dismaying. If they receive an F for completing some work, then, they wonder if they should stop trying.

Education consultant Douglas Reeves has some advice for the superintendents who attended his Friday afternoon session at the AASA national conference: Switch to the 4-3-2-1 scale, from an A to a D. Say goodbye to the 100-point scale.

“We still need grades, though,” Reeves told a crowd of about 60 at his one-hour session. “We need transcripts.”

Reeves, a longtime education consultant and author, founded Creative Leadership Solutions to provide additional trainings to educators and empower them to make changes that will help students succeed. He stays apprised of research and tries to translate it in ways that educators find useful and applicable for their classrooms.

At Friday’s discussion, he shared what the research on grades is showing — that the old-fashioned tactic of giving kids F’s for failing to turn in work does not help the students and that strong reliance on class averages is misleading and unfair to students.

Grades are a hot button for concern these days, especially as school district officials are increasingly aware that how schools grade students’ work can determine whether or not a student remains engaged in class, graduates or continues on to college. Parents, on the other hand, are more aware that how their child is graded can affect where he or she goes to college or if he or she gets in.

By giving students a zero on a 100-point scale, a teacher sends a message — he or she thinks — that failure to turn in work is unacceptable. The student, on the other hand, wonders whether he or she should bother to turn in work or come to class.

Reeves called this punitive approach to grading “academic corporal punishment.”

“On the 4-3-2-1 scale, what grade do you get if you don’t turn it in?” he asked. “Negative 6? Kids end up digging a hole so deep on a 100-point scale that they get an ‘F’ are going to make your life miserable.”

Criticism of 100-point grading scales has heightened amid an increasing awareness —among educators, researchers and the public— that the grading system may hinder the rise of students from low-income homes or who are ethnic minorities. Biases in grading, or using it as a form of punishment, can but shouldn’t influence what grades students receive.

Reeves also asked educators to stop looking at a class average to determine how they grade students. “If LeBron James moved to your district, then the median income would go up,” Reeves said, “but is that an accurate depiction of your area’s income?”

Many heads shook no.

Students sometimes come from stressed homes. Perhaps there is no space for them to quietly finish their homework or perhaps they work after school. Reeves said it is time for educators to stop assigning homework. Create times and spaces at school for students to practice what they have learned.

Dale Marsden, superintendent of the San Bernardino City Unified School District in California, told the group he sees many students living in stressful situations.

He has implemented many of the approaches that education consultant Reeves advises to change the culture of his district, which is the 10th largest in California and among the poorest in the nation. More than 90 percent of the district’s 53,000 students are in low-income households that earn $12,000 or less per year.

The city is known as a center for low-wage, warehouse jobs. It was the focus of a series last year by The Los Angeles Times called “Broken,” in which reporters and photographers documented the city’s struggle with bankruptcy, and its struggles with drug trafficking and drug abuse.

The challenges do not end there. In December 2015, the city suffered a terrorist attack in which 14 people were killed and 22 injured. In April 2017, a man walked into an elementary classroom and killed his estranged wife and two school children before killing himself.

In short, kids there live in troubled, stressful homes and a grieving community. They are seeking refuge, and schools can offer that to them, Marsden said.

When Marsden took the helm at the district seven years ago, San Bernardino had an epidemic of low achievement. “Kids were coming in defeated and kids hand their heads hanging down,” Marsden recalled.

But after several years of slow change, Marsden believes he has achieved a transformation that resulted in students performing better in school, a system that motivates them to succeed and a supportive culture that allowed teachers to make a difference. Teacher turnover is now around 5.4 percent. They are holding the line. “You can’t do it by yourself,” he said.

“The mindset we are trying to create in our system is that our kids will go to college,” Marsden added. “We care about every single person in the system.”

(Emily Gersema is an associate director of communications at USC and a reporter for AASA’s Conference Daily Online.)

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