Passing on grades

Checklist on competency replacing focus on A's, B's, C's D's

Photo by Gary M. Baranec / Mirror photo illustration by Nick Anna

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series about the future of education.

Altoona Area High School Principal Andrew Neely said change in education is like turning a big aircraft; it can’t turn on a dime, but it does move.

The direction it’s moving is away from grades and toward competency-based projects, which Neely is excited about.

“Personally, I’d love to go that direction. We need to take a hard look at ‘what does a diploma mean when a student graduates,'” Neely said.

But it’s hard to move beyond exams and grades, in part because of the pull of government bureaucracy and mandates on schools for state tests. And Neely worries about how higher education would respond to a student who didn’t have grades or a transcript.

So the traditional way of grading, as well as the traditional way of teaching and learning are still in place. But all of that is changing, slowly, Neely said.

Juniata College student Anna Oldenbrook attended Jefferson County Open School, a public school in her home state of Colorado. There were multi-aged students in classrooms of eight, and no grades given; the education was all project-based and individualized, she said.

Each student had an individualized education plan.

“I loved it,” she said.

“We still had to do statewide testing, but the teachers never ‘taught to the test.’ They would say ‘OK guys, this is how we keep our funding. Do your best. You’ll do fine.’

Applying to colleges was a bit difficult without a grade-point average, however.

She applied to New York University and was well on her way until the time came for the university to review her transcript and GPA, which she didn’t have. She was rejected.

“I submitted a portfolio. It was 54 pages that I wrote all myself. People didn’t read it,” she said.

Her portfolio included summaries of several projects she completed during her high school career along with a self-reflection for each one and handwritten feedback from teachers regarding the strengths and weaknesses revealed through the projects.

However, many other colleges including Juniata College accepted her portfolio, she said.

Once on campus at Juniata, she realized her perception of education was a bit different from that of her peers, who were used to chasing grades.

“I would hear my classmates at Juniata saying, ‘All I need is a 69 percent to pass this class,'” she said.

She seemed to be less concerned with a grade and more concerned with how to apply what she was learning.

“I think the kind of experience I had creates more passion for education,” she said.

Oldenbrook is currently a student teacher at Altoona Area High School.

Neely said his biggest fear is to put students in the situation that Oldenbrook found herself in when she was applying to NYU.

“Our education needs to move in the direction she is describing. … But I still need to give transcripts for 500 students that meet their colleges’ needs,” Neely said.

The U.S. Department of Education in 2017, identified and then filmed eight “Future Ready” districts. At those districts, students frequently used online portfolios to catalog examples of daily learning, which in today’s classrooms is driven by the internet.

Including contributions to online forums, produced webinars or published findings to relevant websites, a high school senior’s portfolio would showcase a series of self-directed, collaborative, multidisciplinary projects and provide evidence of what they know and are able to do.

While higher education still largely requires grade transcripts, a coalition of colleges and universities have created a platform for accepting online portfolios from high school students.

The 80 institutions initiating the effort in 2015 included every Ivy League university, Stanford University and the University of Chicago; liberal arts colleges such as Amherst, Swarthmore and Williams colleges; and leading public institutions such as the Universities of Michigan, North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Virginia, according to Inside Higher Ed, a digital media company.

The group is called the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success because the initial goal was to minimize disadvantages faced by high school students without access to well-staffed guidance offices.

The coalition’s vision expanded to allow all students to provide a portfolio type of application, said Rob Yelnosky, Juniata College’s vice president for enrollment.

“How do you gauge a student’s ability to succeed in college? … Whatever materials we get from high schools to make that assessment, we are flexible enough to use. … As the world changes, we need to be flexible as well,” Yelnosky said.

In Bedford County, Everett Area School District Superindent Dan Webb said his district is in the early stages of moving from grade-based education to a more personalized checklist of competencies.

“The problem is when you get into the high school, it gets more difficult because parents are very accustomed to seeing grades. And all of our post-secondary institutions still want the grades. So even if we do competency-based education, we are going to have to come up with a way to put it into a 4.0 scale for the colleges,” Webb said. “So it’s complicated as you move up. But in the early ages, we are finding it is not complicated, and it is probably the most advantageous thing to do.”

Teachers have a checklist of abilities that, by the end of grade one, students should have accomplished.

“So what we do really is a checklist on those competencies that teachers report to parents. And the only thing we’re doing is we are not taking it and converting it into a grade. We started three years ago in the elementary school. Our kindergarten, first and second grades are now completely competency based. Those kids aren’t graded,” Webb said.

Webb said there are many advantages from moving away from grades.

“We want all of our kids reading at grade level by third grade, so it’s more important we know what competencies they are able to do than it is to know if they got an A or B,” Webb said.

“A grade really is just one point of information for a parent. But if you are looking at a whole list of competencies and you see your child is struggling in a particular area in reading, you can help them; we as educators can see clearly what the area is that they are struggling with and we can help them. So I think it gives parents a more detailed look at what their children are really able to do.”

Webb foresees the new way assessing students’ abilities to grow.

“We are moving from the early elementary ages up. I think that’s the most appropriate way to do it, and I’m not sure right now how far that’s going to go,” Webb said. “We may end up with the whole elementary school being competency-based. It wouldn’t surprise me. But we are taking it a bite at a time, instead of throwing something in and getting your whole community in an uproar.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435.

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