The Albemarle County school division wants to change its grading practices, and it is starting with a group of 60 teachers.
Those teachers, representing each of the division’s middle and high schools, met for two days this week to kick off a conversation about grading — what works, what doesn’t and what they can change next school year.
“We’re dipping our toe in the water,” said Natalie Farrell, a lead coach in the division. “... We do want to take the mystery out of [grading].”
Albemarle and Charlottesville City Schools partnered to bring in Ken O’Connor, an educational consultant who has developed a series of grading guidelines, to lead two days of professional development focused on the issue and why changes are necessary. Charlottesville teachers also attended the workshop.
Farrell said the group includes first-year teachers and someone who is retiring next year.
O’Connor also led a community forum Tuesday evening at Jack Jouett Middle School. The Public Education Foundation of Charlottesville-Albemarle paid for the professional development session.
Albemarle schools Superintendent Matt Haas has made changing the grading system a priority because assessment is at the center of what schools do. The current system is inconsistent from school to school, classroom to classroom, he said, and doesn’t communicate what students have or haven’t learned.
Haas said the division isn’t going to eliminate letter grades. Rather, he’s looking at shifting the model to one based on how well students learn state standards and that provides additional information to increase the meaningfulness of the grades.
“It would be much more engaging for students and more authentic if they knew what they could do, what they were learning, what they were good at and what they could improve,” he said in an interview. “But right now, I would dare say that most students don’t have that information.”
Haas reforming grading practices is a long-term project, but one that begins with the teachers who volunteered to attend O’Connor’s workshop.
“So you have a small group, and they learn a lot about it to become experts,” Haas said. “Then you start to grow from there.”
On Tuesday, he charged those teachers to try something different in the next school year. The group will meet three times over the next year and report back on how the new practices worked to help division officials come up with the next steps.
O’Connor advocates for schools to grade using levels of achievement, not points and percentages.
“The percentage on its own means nothing because it has to relate to the difficulty of the skill, the concept and — in school — the difficulty of the assessment,” he said at the forum.
He also wants schools to separate achievement from student behavior and to place a greater emphasis on more recent student work.
Dozens of parents, teachers and community members attended the forum. Division officials plan on hosting more discussions with students and parents about potential changes and said Tuesday’s event will inform those conversations.
Farrell said teachers will look at O’Connor’s proposed fixes and see what’s applicable. The workshop’s second day focused on the application of new grading practices.
Jennifer Sublette, director of professional learning for the division, said the current structure of grading, which is based on the accumulation of points, creates a system where students are motivated by external rewards and not a love of learning.
“If a student falls behind in October, then it’s hard to motivate a student to continue working,” Sublette said. “Students could make a turnaround, but they do not see the pay off.”
O’Connor suggests that teachers not penalize students for late work or give zeroes, which can make it harder for a student’s grade to recover.
A survey of teachers in spring 2018 found inconsistency across the division in late work policies and other grading practices.
O’Connor said such inconsistencies can mean that an A in one freshman English class is different from an A in another freshman English class.
“I do believe we need to have shared practices,” he said.
Sublette said this year is about trying out new grading practices and learning lessons.
“We’re laying ideas on the table to get teachers talking and thinking,” she said.