Standard’s Based Learning: What’s Not Changing

Last month we looked at why FMHS is preparing to move to a standards-based learning approach.  The why is important, but we also understand that norm-referenced learning (traditional grades) is what most of us grew up with, know, and understand.  Today, I’d like to discuss what’s NOT changing once FMHS makes the transition.

Standards-based learning at the secondary level carries a few more caveats than it does in primary and middle levels because traditionally, high school has been about the accumulation of credits towards graduation.  Along with that accumulation, transcripts, grade point averages, honors-level courses, and awards of excellence at the graduation ceremony also come into play.  While the goal at FMHS is to move away from norm-referenced learning into a standards-referenced system, we do not intend to pull the rug out from underneath these traditional aspects.  We recognize that our students have worked hard during their high school adventure to achieve academic success, to have that recognized on reports and transcripts, and for some, to wear the yellow sashes at graduation that indicate salutatorian and valedictorian honors.  Let’s take a look at how FMHS will merge these aspects with a standards-referenced system:

Converting standards-referenced scores into a traditional grade:

Before we can discuss any other traditional aspects, we must discuss how we translate standard scores based on an integer-based proficiency scale into a letter grade.  There are three generally-accepted methods for doing so, including converting standard scores into a percentages method; averaging students’ scores and applying a G.P.A scale to determine a grade; and using a logic rule.  The method that FMHS will use has yet to be determined.  Once we have determined which method we will use, it will be thoroughly laid out to students and parents.  The point is that while we will use standard scores over the course of each trimester, once the end of a course is reached, those standard scores will be translated into letter grades, and that is what will be reported on the report card, and transcript.

Report cards and transcripts:

Report cards and transcripts at FMHS will remain largely the same.  Using a translation method, the grades will be reported to students and parents in the form of a letter grade.  The difference will be in how students and parents will understand the grade.  At the moment, in our norm-referenced system, we generally accept a letter grade and percentage for what it is, regardless of the fact that most of the time, we really don’t know what the grade actually means.  When a student scores 75%, we assume they are an average student. They could have done better. They could have done worse.  When it comes down to it, though, only the teacher can explain why the student earned a 75%. Replacing the norm-referenced system with a standards-referenced system will allow for the teacher, the student, and their parents to know exactly which concepts the student struggled with, and what they excelled at.  Further, parents can be assured that when the student struggled, the instructor took steps to remediate the struggles to bring the student into proficiency.  You see, when we utilize mastery-based learning (in a standards-referenced system), we set the bar high (rigor), and then get everyone there (good instruction and valid assessment).  In a nutshell, that is the difference in the two systems.  At FMHS, we believe that difference is critical.

Grade Point Average:

In whichever method FMHS chooses to translate standard scores into letter grades, the G.P.A will still be a thing.  We know that an A equals four points in a traditional grading scale.  Three points equals a B, and so on.  Once the standard scores are translated at the end of a course, PowerSchool will do the rest.

Honors courses and the honors scale:

At the moment, honors courses do, and will remain in the schedule.  Honors courses are identified in both the FMHS course catalog, as well as in the FMHS student handbook.  The honors scale, which is board-approved, will remain, as well. 

Awards of academic excellence at graduation:

Currently, it remains that valedictorians and salutatorians will be recognized at graduation ceremonies.

It should be noted that grade point averages and awards of academic excellence are rooted in the norm-referenced idea that students should be judged against other students.  As stated above, the instructors at FMHS wish to bring all students into mastery.  We can only do this by judging students against standards.  While these traditions will remain at FMHS, they will not be the focus of learning, nor should they be the reasons students take, or don’t take classes.  There are dozens of variables that we must consider in making these significant decisions.  We are not arguing that everyone needs the proverbial participation award. 

It’s a fact that in every graduating class, there are scores of honorable stories of achievement, adversity conquered, success over time after a shaky start, and excelling in non-academic ways.  In every class, there are students for whom high school has had a demonstrably more powerful influence than it had for students who arrived in ninth grade at the top of their game.  There are students who struggled at first and through hard work and support from attentive teachers and other staff, made dramatic progress; students who discovered a new passion; and those who excelled in career and technical courses.  To do this right, we must address flaws in our grading practices.  We must rethink the metrics we utilize to recognize excellence.  Rather than ranking students and adding to the pressure and anxiety which already accompanies high school, we have to increase the chances of students choosing courses based on their interests, needs, and aspirations.  

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