Start of school ushers in big changes | August 17, 2012 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

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News - August 17, 2012

Start of school ushers in big changes

Kahn Academy, new grading policy, more students

by Nick Veronin

As students at Mountain View and Los Altos high schools were busy adjusting to their new class schedules and evaluating each others' back-to-school outfits, their teachers were preoccupied with adjustments and evaluations of another kind.

Monday, Aug. 13, was the first day of the new school year in the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District. And along with the new teachers, more students and many new courses, the day also marked the start of a brand new grading policy — a retooled system for assessing student performance that district administrators said is nothing short of revolutionary.

Grading policy

"There are very few districts, if any, that have a put a policy like this in place," said Brigitte Sarraf, associate superintendent of educational services for the district. In all the meetings she has had with other high school district administrators throughout the state, she said she has never come across a grading policy as "progressive" as the one her district has adopted.

A new MVLA board policy, approved late last school year, dictates that a student's letter grade must solely reflect his or her mastery of the academic material and not take into account behavior, attendance or work habits. The new policy also requires that all classes taught within a given department are taught in a similar fashion, so that no student feels that he or she has the "easier" — or "harder" — teacher.

The policy follows the recommendations made by the Assessment Task Force, a group composed of district administrators, teachers, parents and students, which spent a year considering how MVLA's grading policies could be improved. The task force interviewed students, parents and teachers while working on its official list of recommendations, which were delivered to the district's board of trustees in April.

"Students have the right to receive course grades that represent an accurate assessment of a student's achievement of content and performance standards," the district board's policy says. "Grades are not influenced by a student's behavior, student characteristics and/or non-academic indicators."

When grades are a composite of too many factors, Sarraf said, it can be confusing for a student to understand how he or she really arrived at that final mark.

"You won't survive in the real world if you don't have good work habits," Sarraf said, acknowledging a common critique of the new system. However, she continued, teachers and their department teams are working on ways to assess and give feedback on non-academic factors separately. "It's all about providing useful feedback to students instead of lumping it all together."

Teachers, kids, courses

There are 14 new teachers working throughout the district this year, Sarraf said, along with as many as 90 more students than last year, spread across both Mountain View and Los Altos high schools.

This year also comes with a slew of new classes — some brand new, others duplications of existing classes to meet student demand.

The construction program — which began at Mountain View High School last year and give students access to hands-on exercises in masonry, plumbing, electrical work and roofing — will expand, taking on students from the neighboring continuation high school, Alta Vista.

Los Altos, which has long had a robotics club, will now have an official class for school credit. Both comprehensive high schools will now offer three levels of Mandarin language courses.

On the Advanced Placement front, Sarraf said she is "totally stoked about" a new AP computer science course at Mountain View High School. There will also be a new AP Japanese course at MVHS and an AP Latin course at LAHS.

But the associate superintendent said she is perhaps most eagerly anticipating the introduction of a health career class at Los Altos High School. Students in this course will learn how to measure blood pressure, test for blood sugar levels, measure eyesight for corrective lenses, practice sports medicine and work with a blood-drawing simulator built into a plastic model of a human arm.

Khan Academy

Two Mountain View High School teachers will be using Khan Academy's online tutorials to help their students learn algebra and geometry, Sarraf said. The limited introduction of the Mountain View-based, online instructional tool comes after MVHS math instructors, Justin Sligh and Jared Darby, each had success using Khan Academy in their summer school classes.

Sarraf said the district brass is "intrigued" by Khan Academy, which is headquartered on Castro Street and has garnered national attention and praise for its line of instructional YouTube videos and interactive online tests.

"We don't know exactly what it's going to look like at this point," she said of the future of Khan Academy in the district. "We are considering it as one more tool in our toolbox. We are definitely still in the exploratory stage. We are exploring the benefits."

One such benefit, Sarraf said, is that some teachers in the Los Altos School District, as well as in the Mountain View Whisman School District, have been using Khan Academy. She said it would "make sense for us to continue to provide access to that tool" to students as they matriculate into MVLA's high schools.


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