By Jeremy Vidito, Starr Commonwealth Educational Services
In 2012 we opened the doors at Starr Detroit Academy to 526 K-5 students on the east side of Detroit. The opening represented three years of planning on the part of Starr Commonwealth, our parent organization, along with intense support from parents and community members. Starr Detroit Academy was founded on the belief that all students can and will be successful. As educators it is our responsibility to put the systems and structures in place to foster and develop that success.
As the founding principal, it has been quite a whirlwind, but I’m excited about the success Starr Detroit Academy has achieved. This is measured not only in the academic gains our youth have made — nearly two years of consistent growth in math and reading for our fifth-grade students — but also in the social and emotional development that has made these young men and women leaders in their school and community. This past year we expanded to serve an additional 250 students by offering sixth grade; we will continue to grow until we serve pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.
Our educational model is based on a mastery learning instructional approach that combines direct instruction and blended learning. This instructional strategy encourages school leaders, teachers, parents and students to focus on student mastery of core concepts. Standards are broken down into bite-sized objectives that build in a logical progression and ultimately lead to student proficiency.
Standards-based grading was one of numerous strategies we implemented from Day 1. And it became evident quite early in our first year that we had some challenges to overcome if we were going to successfully implement standards-based grading. As the leadership team reflected on the obstacles, we identified core competencies we had to have in place to successfully launch standards-based grading:
Teacher Professional Development: Our teachers were all well-intentioned, but many did not fully understand what it meant to implement standards-based grading. They were new and veteran teachers who were familiar with traditional grading, which favors effort over proficiency. We had to work with the staff to understand that while we still value hard work — perseverance is one of our core values — it is not something that we incorporate when evaluating student proficiency on a specific standard.
Define Rubric Scores: In grade-level team meetings during the first quarter, teachers started to realize that student scores did not mean the same thing; students were evaluated differently from one classroom to the next. Without common expectations for scoring, standards-based grading did not help us understand student proficiency. As grade-level teams we had to come together to build common expectations around proficiency and student scores. We asked teachers to share work samples and discuss what level of proficiency represented mastery, approaching mastery, etc.
Gradebook: Effective standards-based grading and reporting requires an effective gradebook. If this gradebook is not part of your SIS system, then it should connect so student-staff rosters import easily. The system must generate report cards in the manner that is readable by staff and families.
During our first year we struggled through these issues and more as we continued to implement a scaled-back form of standards-based grading. We focused on what we could: teacher professional development, defining rubric scores, and parent engagement. We could not change our gradebook or report card option, so we implemented Excel-based trackers and Google docs to generate report cards.
We worked with our families to support them around the scoring, which was their biggest frustration. Our report card conferences were all one-on-one so teachers and administrators could explain the report cards and the scoring.
Armed with our previous success and failures, in our second year we once again pushed forward with standards-based grading implementation. We used the summer professional development to spend more time training our staff. We launched a new partnership with the Achievement Network, which provided Common Core-aligned scope and sequence for math and English and standards-aligned interim assessments. Through ANET tools our staff aligns core objectives with standards to track progress, and creates informal and formal checks for understanding.
We also introduced a new gradebook — which ultimately failed to meet our needs, so we turned back to Excel-based trackers that enabled us to produce easy-to-read, parent-friendly report cards. The new report cards listed the standards per subject, the students’ efficiency score for each standard, and included a section for elective courses grading. With a new report card layout and rubric, we knew it would be just as necessary to help parents transition. During the first quarter of our second year, we required parent/teacher conferences to review student report cards. This allowed teachers to go through each standard with the parent and explain what constituted a score of one, two, three and four.
Looking back, there are a few things we should have done differently to ensure a smooth and exciting transition to standards-based grading. If you and your school are looking at making transitions, it’s incredibly important that you have a good change management plan in place. Think about how you’ll communicate the change with teachers, how you’ll get their input on designing the process, and what it means for the entire teaching staff. Make sure you research your gradebook and take time to test it out; there are a lot of different options out there, and having a user-friendly gradebook will greatly impact your transition. It’s vital that you have a professional development plan in place so that training is a priority. Consider establishing a parent committee to participate in the implementation — i.e., review gradebooks or potential report cards. These parents can give you valuable input on what works, and they can champion the implementation to other families.
There are so many great examples of districts who’ve successfully implemented standards-based grading. Don’t be afraid to lean on them for support and best practices.
Jeremy Vidito is Executive Director of Strategic Planning & New Schools at Starr Commonwealth Educational Services.
About the Author
MIND Research Institute welcomes guest blogs that highlight best practices in math education, blended learning and innovative learning strategies that inspire students at all ages.