Tuesday, February 10, 2009

No Grades or Grade Levels--Until High School

Sure, let kids work at their own pace and even solicit their input in lesson planning. Let them think that learning is one big kumbayyah fest--and then let high school slap them in the face.

For starters, when the elementary and middle-school students come back next fall, there won't be any grade levels – or traditional grades, for that matter. And those are only the most visible changes in a district that, striving to reverse dismal test scores and a soaring dropout rate, is opting for a wholesale reinvention of itself, rather than the incremental reforms usually favored by administrators.

The 10,000-student district in the metropolitan Denver area is at the forefront of a new "standards-based" educational approach that has achieved success in individual schools and in some small districts in Alaska, but has yet to be put to the test on such a large scale in an urban district...

The district is training teachers to involve students in the lesson plan in a far greater way than before – the students articulate their goals and develop things such as a code of conduct as a classroom. And when children fall short of understanding the material, they keep working at it. The only "acceptable" score to move on to the next lesson is the equivalent of a "B" in normal grading – hopefully showing proficiency and giving kids a better foundation as they move on to more advanced concepts. Advocates sometimes describe it as flipping the traditional system around so that time, rather than mastery of material, is the variable...

Scheduling is a big one (complication). It's also unclear what will happen if large numbers of kids arrive in high school still unable to demonstrate proficiency in certain subjects, like math, and a bottleneck gets created. Since no student can move forward without a "B" equivalent, it's also essentially impossible for students to have lower than a 3.0 GPA, which could be a challenge to explain to colleges.
I'm cynical about such projects. It will be interesting to see how this turns out.


Anonymous said...

This kind of project is *great.* It'll help keep us busy at the CC/JC level for many more years, God willing.

Happy Elf Mom (Christine) said...

I think it depends on the motivation behind the no-grade thing. Are they truly going to help gifted children study ahead and help a struggling learner truly GET the material before moving on? I guess that would be my question.

We're actually a grade ahead in some subjects than others in our homeschool, and I think that's ok if we're working on learning the "next" thing. Certainly when I'm teaching English, the same concepts (capitalization, punctuation, etc.) come up again and again no matter what grade number is on the front of the teacher manual.


Sometimes I let my children figure out what they want to study, sort of a mini-unit. These can be a lot of fun if time permits.

mmazenko said...

Valid point, though they have some evidence of success in smaller districts. I am somewhat intrigued by this, especially in relation to a book entitled "The Case Against Adolescence" by Robert Epstein. He effectively argues that "adolescence" is a twentieth century invention, and it, in many way inhibits teens from developing by lengthening the time between childhood and adulthood.

The connection to the "standards-based" curriculum is he advocates for basic competency testing for progression in school. I have a considerable number of teens in my AP Lang class now (and every year) who I can almost guarantee right now will pass the AP exam with a 4, if not a 5. They are already competent to read, write, discuss, and research at the college level. Thus, what's the argument behind them logging the full 1080 contact hours?

I have many reasons why, but I also acknowledge the argument that a rigid k-12 system is flawed.

Erica said...

I'd say they have a point, if they really have the fortitude to hold back students indefinitely until they "get" certain subjects.

Hopefully this will eliminate the problem I kept seeing in tutoring. Semi-hopeless kids were given a hail-Mary desperation pass, and I ended up with seniors in calculus who barely knew how to add.

teachergirl said...

This is interesting. I like the idea of moving students along based on mastery of material, rather than social promotion. I was unaware of this although I'm in the Denver area (different district). Definitely something I'll be following to see what happens.

Anonymous said...

Unless Denver has instituted a comprehensive testing/tracking system this looks like just another bit of edu-crap that's supposed to give the appearance of progress in some vague, but educationally noble, direction while, in fact doing no such thing.

The way to prevent "large numbers of kids arrive(ing) in high school still unable to demonstrate proficiency" is to have some means in place of having them demonstrate proficiency incrementally until all the increments, piled up, demonstrate an acceptable degree of proficiency. The age-related grade system does that by requiring, more or less, the demonstration of increments of proficiency toward an ultimate goal as the means by which, theoretically, a kid passes from one grade to the next.

Grades, once again theoretically, provide a handy measure and a defensible increment of progress towards the goal of demonstrating sufficient proficiency to claim a high school diploma. But if you're going to get rid of them you have to have some even more handy and even more defensible means of measuring and demonstrating progress towards the level of proficiency necessary to attain a high school diploma.

Denver looks like they're setting up ten levels to replace the twelve grades but that doesn't mean a thing and the article's pretty vague about how kids go from one level to the next other then to state the requirement is that a kid has to get the equivalent of a "B" grade to pass. Be nice to know if those ten levels had any value but then it's a fairly short article and the journalist has only so much time.

Ellen K said...

It may sound like it's child centered on paper, but without any measures to assure mastery, these projects will create so many hurdles that either no kids will advance or all kids will advance. This is part of the new wave of education drivel which sounds like Montessori with a technology chaser to me. This is also part of the slippery slope to move teachers from actually teaching topics and instead holding the role of facilitator. Open classrooms were a bust, so was Whole Language. This is just another program that some company has sold to administrators as the next great thing. It will eat up money, mess up students and nothing will change.