Mountain View and Los Altos high school students may soon see significant shifts in the way teachers assess and grade their academic performance.
If the local high school district adopts the recommendations made by an officially sanctioned task force (composed of teachers, parents and students), instructors will soon be required to assess student understanding of academics separately from student behavior in class, attendance and work habits.
Additionally, should the district adopt the proposed policy changes, greater pressure will be placed on individual departments to ensure that different teachers of the same course provide similar experiences to their students.
The recommendations come from the Assessment Task Force -- a group of 14 teachers, three parents and three students, who have been researching disparate grading practices by interviewing students, parents and other teachers, and discussing and debating potential changes to the district's current student assessment policies.
Brigitte Sarraf, associate superintendent of educational services for the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, is very passionate about the project. She said that the goal of the task force is to improve the district's grading policies, and, ultimately, help the students perform better.
"We ought to be able to guarantee students that whatever grade they earn is based on a common set of principles or standards, and that the grade reflects the degree to which they have mastered that subject," Sarraf said.
Traditionally, teachers have often considered behavior, attendance and other non-academic factors when calculating a student's grade, said Paige Price, an English teacher at Mountain View High School.
Price, who led the task force at her school, said many of the grading policies in place today were created, in part, to help the military sort through recruits. If that were the sole purpose, things like work ethic, promptness, and the ability to follow direction would be very useful metrics.
"They really don't function now when you're trying to give students feedback on what they're doing well and what they need to improve in," she said.
Because students only get one grade per subject, considering all non-academic factors within that single grade results in a distorted assessment of a student's comprehension of the academic material.
Following directions, work ethic, promptness and ability to cooperate with others are all important life skills, Price admits, and the task force is not suggesting that schools should stop pushing students to develop those skills. Rather, she said, "We are going to reshape the process of assessment."
The grading of a student's understanding of the content should be separated from all other non-academic factors, Price said. "That is not to be conflated with the reporting of their academic progress."
More than a grade
On top of that, the task force is calling on teachers to go above and beyond giving students a simple letter grade.
In the future, when Price gives a student a grade, she is going to provide meaningful feedback -- explaining how she judged the quality of the student's work as well as explaining where there is room for improvement.
"One of our big issues was lack of alignment between courses," Price said. Over the course of interviewing students and parents, the task force discovered that each year, in the process of picking or being assigned classes, teens would evaluate teachers based upon how "easy" or "hard" they were. Parents were in on it, too -- often pushing their kids to take the "harder" teacher, assuming that their children would get a better education.
In other words, Price said, earning an A in a course taught by one teacher required less work than earning an A in the same course taught by a different teacher. The task force's recommendations are aimed at putting a stop to that.
The task force presented its recommendations to the MVLA district board of trustees at a meeting March 26. The board will vote to approve the new policies at a later date.
The trustees seemed generally pleased with the thrust of the task force's recommendations. However, trustee Joe Mitchner raised a question that led to several minutes of open debate between Mitchner and board president Phil Faillace.
Mitchner suggested that the list of recommendations include a detailed explanation of the devastating mathematical impact of giving a student a zero. He explained how a student given a zero out of 100 on one exam would still have an F after scoring 100 points on a subsequent test of equal value -- assuming the teacher takes the average of both tests, since many teachers give an F for anything between zero and 50 percent. Mitchner said it seems that the two grades should average out to a C.
Faillace countered, noting that many teachers would not agree with his logic.
Price said that including a provision aimed at directly dealing with the "double zero" phenomenon was opposed by many teachers, who felt that it would amount to giving students points for an assignment they hadn't completed -- the most common reason for a zero is a student missing a test or assignment entirely.
Striking a compromise, the task force has proposed making it so teachers must be more accommodating to students who miss tests or fail to turn in assignments. Students ought to be able to make up assignments they have missed, Price reasoned. Punishing them academically for missing an assignment they may very well understand is counter-productive. And if they don't understand the assignment they neglected to do, teachers still need to make sure they learn it.
All of the Assessment Task Force's suggestions can be found on the district's website, mvla.net, by following the links to the board of trustees' meeting agendas, clicking on the March 26 meeting packet and scrolling down to the section covering "Grades/Evaluation of Student Achievement."