Grading system 'broken' or just buggy? | May 31, 2013 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

News - May 31, 2013

Grading system 'broken' or just buggy?

by Nick Veronin

While excited about his daughter's graduation from Mountain View High School, Steve Uhlir said the timing troubles him.

That's because once Uhlir's daughter is no longer a student at MVHS, he no longer has a direct link to the school's grading system — which he describes as "broken."

Uhlir, who began speaking out against aspects of the new student assessment policy about six months ago, said he is feels the issue is being "swept under the rug" by school administrators.

At the May 28 meeting of the Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District board, Uhlir called upon the trustees to compel the administration to act to fix the problems he's detailed.

Making grades fair

Uhlir first addressed the board with his concerns in December 2012 — saying that while he agreed with the goals of the new grading policy, there have been unintended consequences at MVHS, that will unfairly impact students.

The policy — which the district board approved at the end of the 2011-12 school year and which district administrators and teachers began implementing at the beginning of the this school year — was hailed by Superintendent Barry Groves and Assistant Superintendent of Education Services Brigitte Saraff.

Both Groves and Saraff said the new system would make grading fairer across the board by ensuring that there would no longer be so-called "easy" and "hard" teachers. The policy would make it so grades more accurately reflected a student's mastery of a given subject, the district administrators said. By assessing non-academic factors such as attendance, work-ethic and attitude separately from comprehension, the policy would be fairer to students of all stripes.

The new system is also intended to make it easier for students to understand what their grades mean. The system replaced an A letter grade with the term "advanced," B with "proficient," C with "basic," D with "below basic" and F with "failing."

According to Uhlir, one of the biggest problems with the new system appears to arise from a problem of translating the raw test and assignment scores into these assessment terms and then translating them back into numbers again.

Uhlir said that in those classes where the new grading terms have been adopted, students get assignments back with one of the words — from "advanced" to "failing" — scrawled across the top.

Translation problems

However, he said, teachers then must turn that term back into a number and plug it into the district's cloud-based grading management system, — which allows teachers to keep their grade books in an online database, where they can easily be checked by parents, students and district administrators.

An "advanced" grade is awarded for any score between 93 percent and 100 percent. According to Uhlir, in some classes, when teachers went to enter an "advanced" score into, they would simply split the difference — marking that student down for a 97 percent, even if he or she earned a 100 percent or a 93 percent. The same thing could happen with any grading term on the spectrum from "advanced" to "failing," Uhlir said. Furthermore, he added, this would happen not just on assignments that were graded somewhat subjectively, such as essays and book reports; it would also happen on multiple-choice tests, where it is possible to get a perfect score.

This glitch — one among many imperfections in the new system — will unfairly impact students who are on the fence between earning one grade or another, Uhlir said. And while he admits it is a small problem, he said it would be easy to fix.

At the May 28 board meeting, Uhlir told trustees that a simple solution would be to get the math department to take a look at grading practices throughout the school and come up with a fix.

Board concerns

The trustees seemed receptive to Uhlir — with Joe Mitchner, Phil Faillace, Susan Sweely and Debbie Torok all expressing concern that the glitches Uhlir highlighted in December have not been solved.

"I'm really surprised and sorry to hear that the math is still broken," Faillace said, referring to the problem with converting scores into the appropriate percentage. "I think we need to acknowledged that we have a problem."

Both Groves and Saraff were willing to acknowledge that the new system had not yet been perfected, they each seemed to classify the issues highlighted by Uhlir either as small bumps in the road or non-issues.

At the recent board meeting, Saraff said there were some problems with the new system, but equated the issue with not having the right tool. Both she and Groves said they were working with officials at to come up with a fix to the problem.

"There is awareness (of the problems) and people are working on it," she said. "It's not going to happen overnight. We're asking for patience."

Groves even said he felt some of Uhlir's concerns weren't too serious, since teachers are able to make judgment calls and bump up student's final grades when it makes sense to do so.

Speaking with the Voice after the meeting, Uhlir said he feels his concerns are simply being brushed aside. "In my opinion that's an excuse," he said, referring to Saraff and Groves' defense of the grading system.

Next year, once his daughter has packed up and moved to Southern California for college, Uhlir said there's "no reason to believe that anyone will be stepping up" to continue his fight. According to Uhlir, there are more parents and teachers who take issue with the new grading system, but they are unwilling to come forward for a variety of reasons — including fear of reprisal.

If no one comes forward, Uhlir said he believes that the problem won't simply be "swept under the rug; it will be left lying around on the floor."


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