FORT WAYNE — A Fort Wayne Community Schools high school teacher can no longer dock a student’s grade for skipping class, give a student extra credit for bringing in a canned good for a food drive or give extra points for touchdowns scored in Friday night’s football game.
These examples are among a host of problems FWCS is trying to address with a new high school grading system. The district implemented the changes this school year hoping to graduate more students prepared for life after high school, said Faye Williams-Robins, high school area administrator for the district.
Although interim reports have been sent out, students will receive their first-quarter grades under the new system in November.
With the new system, “we can better identify the struggling, weak students and better support those students as well as our high-achieving students, so we don’t have kids leaving us unprepared,” she said.
A student’s grade in any class is now split into two parts: 80 percent is summative assessments such as tests and finals and 20 percent is formative assessments such as homework assignments and quizzes. Additional comments or a plus or a minus can be used to indicate a student’s work ethic or classroom behavior.
A 12-point scale replaces percentages to determine a student’s letter grade. A zero is an F, one is a D-, two is a D and so on, instead of the old scale in which zero to 69 percent was an F or 90 percent to 100 percent was an A.
Williams-Robbins said teachers have flexibility to weight assignments within the summative or formative categories, as long as the 80-20 split remains. She said they can also use “professional judgment” to make adjustments for student effort.
Last year, the district hired Tim Westerburg, a grading expert from Colorado, to develop the system with a teacher task force and provide training over the summer. Teachers provided feedback throughout the process, and the district conducted parent meetings to provide information and hear feedback.
Over the past few years, the district has seen a disconnect between its students’ grades and their performance on standardized tests.
Williams-Robbins said this existed on both sides of the performance spectrum: some students receiving F’s in all their classes were passing standardized tests with flying colors while other students in Advanced Placement classes were not receiving high enough scores on the AP test to secure college credits.
The district also found grade inflation to be an issue. Perhaps one teacher would give students extra credit for bringing in a canned good, boosting the students’ grade but not because the student completed homework or performed well on a test, Westerburg said.
Through the process of fine-tuning the new system Williams-Robbins heard of a teacher giving a football player extra credit for the number of touchdowns he scored on Friday nights.
Another reason for the changes was to close the gap between grade intervals. Receiving anywhere from a zero to 69 percent gave a student an F, whereas the interval for an A was just 10 percentage points, making an F weigh more than all other grades.
A high-achieving student could blow one test or homework assignment, and that zero would bring down his or her grade significantly, Williams-Robbins said. The 12-point scale provides the same interval for each letter grade.
“Closing that gap makes all grades equal,” she said.
Grades should be an accurate reflection of what students know and what they’re able to do, she said. The new system encourages a teacher to allow students to retake a test or quiz, but Williams-Robbins emphasized students “have to show they’ve done something to gain additional knowledge,” whether that’s extra reading or a project. The retake should also be different from the original test.
“If it’s truly about making sure a student learns, then it’s not ‘I didn’t do well, I move on,’ ” she said. “This is a way of saying the material is still important, show me you’re more ready, that you really know the material.”
She said the days of simply giving an assignment and recording the grade are over.
“There should be continuous monitoring, assessing and support to make sure students are getting what they need,” she said. “It’s a lot of work.”
But Dawn Wooten, a godparent of a Wayne High School senior and an adjunct professor, said the system doesn’t accurately measure students’ progress and could be a nightmare for students with test-taking anxiety.
“I think (the system) is grossly disproportionate,” she said. “You have to consider (students’) work over the long term.”
Wooten said despite her godson’s perfect scores on all homework assignments, he has a D in his psychology class because he received a D on a test, worth 80 percent of his total grade. She said her godson suffers from test anxiety.
“It’s going to affect his GPA, and it affects his self- confidence,” she said. “He feels there’s no point to study because he’s not going to do well anyway. It’s demoralizing rather than encouraging.”
Williams-Robbins said part of the system is to identify these students and help them overcome test-taking anxiety. She said all students will have to take tests: standardized tests, college entrance exams, even driving tests.
“Tests are not going away,” she said. “That can no longer be an excuse.”
Matt Mertes, a social studies teacher at North Side High School, said there will always be anxious test takers like Wooten’s godson.
“Those kids have existed since tests have existed. Changing our policy doesn’t change those kids’ emotions,” he said.
Mertes said he works with students with anxiety about tests, to test them in a different environment or in a different way to make them more comfortable.
“The change in policy has certainly encouraged teachers to look at what we do as a group,” he said. “It makes us pause to think about what did I do that was successful and what can I do differently.”
North Side High School teacher Wendi Plumb said the system has made her students think differently about tests. Plumb, a government and economics and U.S. history teacher, said she has a wide range of students from high achievers to those who receive special education services.
“Students are taking tests so much more seriously,” she said.
Mertes also said he has “significantly fewer students who are not showing up on the day of a test.”
“One thing kids have figured out quickly is when a test is coming, they better be prepared,” Mertes said. “I would say my kids this quarter are demonstrating a deeper grasp of the material.”
Initially, Plumb said she was concerned students would become lazy with homework and quizzes because they’re not worth as much, “but I don’t have a ton of missing assignments,” she said.
She said teachers she knows have been emphasizing to students that the formative assignments are important to practice and prepare for the summative assessments. And teachers are intervening when students don’t do well on formative assessments to reteach material or tailor instruction to the individual student before the student has a chance to bomb a test, she said.
South Side teacher Renee Albright said her thoughts on the new system are still neutral, saying it will be easier to see the difference after the first quarter ends. Teachers submitted final grades Thursday. Right now, teachers still grade assignments using percentages and enter them into Pinnacle, the district’s electronic grading system, which then calculates the grade on the 12-point scale.
Williams-Robbins said teachers should be inputting grades weekly into Pinnacle, which students and parents can access at home.
She said that’s important because if a teacher isn’t grading assignments then neither the teacher nor the student knows the progress.
Initially, Williams-Robbins said there were concerns, but the district is hoping to continue to support teachers with assessments.
“Teaching has changed,” she said. “I admire the people that are adjusting to those changes, because it’s not an easy job.”