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Guest Post: A HS Spanish Teacher’s Journey from Traditional Grades to Standards-Based Grades

By Rhonda Higgins- IB Spanish teacher at Parkland Magnet High School in Winston Salem, NC

About five years ago I found myself deeply engaged in a school-wide discussion on assessment practices. As the discussion continued, I found myself wondering:.

  • Why wouldn’t standards-based grading work at the high school level?

  • What would happen if I gave students multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery of a standard?

  • Could this be the key to shift the mindset of students from getting a good grade to focusing on learning the Spanish language?

There were so many questions.

Additionally, I wanted to affect change in the students’ mindsets from learning Spanish to fulfill a graduation requirement to learning Spanish to enhance their options moving forward in the real world after high school, whether it be in the workforce, military, or college/university setting.

Then, as if all the stars were in alignment, that summer, the NCDPI (North Carolina Department of Public Instruction) offered an amazing opportunity: Part of the email read: “Teachers, do you want to improve your teaching practice? Improve your students’ performance? Prove if a strategy or program is actually effective? Do you want to do this while earning CEUs and remaining in your classroom? We invite you to join the NC Action Research Network (NCARN) and learn to complete “real-time” research in your classroom.” This was perfect! The journey began!

Here are the steps I followed to get started:

  1. Research, research, and then more research! I discovered leaders in the field of assessment such as Rick Wormeli, Ken O’Connor, Alfie Kohn, Mark Barnes and others. Then, that’s when I found Starr Sackstein’s Hacking Assessment: “10 Ways to Go Gradeless in a Traditional Grades School”. This book resonated with me because it included step-by-step instructions that I could immediately implement in the classroom.

  2. Parents received a letter outlining the new grading procedures during Open House at the beginning of the school year, and the same letter was posted online in PowerSchool Learning.

  3. Students were introduced to how standards-based grading would be applied in class during the first couple weeks of the first quarter.

  4. Students received narrative feedback in place of traditional percentage grades on all formative and summative assessments from the teacher, their peers, and themselves. Students were also given direct instruction on how to give meaningful feedback.

  5. All work was organized by each student in a portfolio labeled with the standards addressed during the quarter. Students kept a progress tracker within their portfolio to keep up with all of the standards, assignments, feedback, and strategies used throughout the quarter. They could also keep an e-Portfolio within PowerSchool Learning if they chose to do so.

  6. I tracked student progress toward meeting the standards in the PowerSchool Learning Standards-Based Gradebook instead of recording traditional percentage grades in the PowerTeacher GradeBook. Students also brought home standards-based progress reports.

  7. Student-led conferences occurred mid-quarter and end of the quarter where the student and I would have a discussion of their progress towards meeting the standards as well as determine the sole traditional percentage grade to be recorded in PowerTeacher at the end of the quarter.

Below are reflections from students in a Spanish 2 class about their experience with standards-based grading. From their reflections, I created categories/themes that kept coming up in their reflections. Each number represents a student and what they thought about each part of the process.

That was then…This is now!

After my action research, I went on to lead several professional development sessions on my work and our district has implemented standards-based grading in grades K-2. Also, there are now ongoing conversations at the district level on mastery grading.

Now at a different high school, I’m fortunate to have the support of my administration and so I am still able to maintain my grading practice, even though a few things have changed. We have been teaching remotely and now in a hybrid model for the rest of the school year due to the pandemic. Feedback is given more orally than in written form due to what we never have enough of: TIME! I give feedback and students record it on their progress trackers. I’ll give it in real-time or record it in our new LMS, Canvas. The mid and end-of-quarter conferences have been converted to Google Form Reflections and I conference face to face with all students via Zoom in Break-Out rooms who are struggling and any other student who requests to meet.

Students also now receive a traditional percentage grade mid-quarter as well as at the end of the quarter. To be clear, these grades are not averaged. The end-of-quarter grade replaces the mid-quarter grade.

Due to the pandemic, I have really struggled with being able to give timely feedback because nowadays everything takes such a long time to create, facilitate and follow through.

But just when I felt like standards-based grading during a pandemic was just too hard, and I felt like giving up, I had one student during a mid-quarter conference give me inspiration. I asked her if she would share her thoughts again with me and here is what she said.

“I think this method of grading is extremely effective in not only seeing my growth as a student but also in encouraging me to improve in areas where I need to. It allows me to see how and where I can improve without worrying about an arbitrary number that the system has calculated, and it considers the fact that I am human, and that I make mistakes. This also allows me to assess myself based on how well I think I have done, and what grade I feel I deserve based on that. For these reasons, I think more teachers should adopt this grading practice with their students.” Lenore Williams, 11th grader Parkland Magnet High School

After reading this, you may feel that maybe jumping all into standards-based grading is overwhelming, but my suggestion to you is to start small.

  • Focus on one class.

  • Try taking one assessment and putting narrative feedback on it instead of a percentage.

  • Confer with your students at least once a quarter.

  • Keep evidence of your students’ progress overtime via portfolios and

  • Start having conversations with your administration to see what you are able to implement.

Most of all, keep an open mind, be flexible, and know that the process of reforming your grading practices will change over time, and that’s okay! The growth you see in your students as well as yourself is well worth the journey.

Rhonda Higgins has a B.A. in Spanish and Masters in Instructional Technology. She has been teaching for 19 years. She is a wife and mother to 3 daughters, 17, 5, and 6 months. When not in the classroom, she is an avid long-distance runner.

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