School Board Approves New Middle School Grading System

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday May 21, 2009 - 09:57:00 AM

The Berkeley Board of Education approved a new grading system for the city’s public middle schools last week, which will replace the traditional A through F scale on report cards with two grades. 

Students will be given a score of 1 to 4—with four being the highest—on two separate columns, one illustrating their performance standards and the other their work habits, something some middle school educators hope would improve student performance and communication with parents. 

The board voted to approve the proposal unanimously following a presentation on the new grading system by a group of middle school principals and teachers at a school board meeting May 13.  

All three middle schools in the Berkeley Unified School District—King, Longfellow and Willard—have been placed in Program Improvement status by the state for not meeting the Adequate Yearly Progress goals under the federal No Child Left Behind regulations. King Principal Jason Lustig said the grade change was one way to address the issue. 

Lustig first proposed the grade change plan for King at a school board meeting in June last year after consulting with his staff on ways to improve student achievement, but board members were somewhat reluctant to implement it at only one middle school. 

“We saw these new grades as an opportunity to interact with parents and boost student motivation,” Lustig told the Planet. “Globally people understand what A to F means, but we have also seen districts shift to standards-oriented grading. We didn’t have a system that provided direct feedback, and we thought this would do that. By separating performance standards and work habits into two grades, things become more clear.” 

The work habits will measure a student’s classwork, homework, on-time attendance and participation while the performance standards will be a mix of big and small assessments. 

Lustig said that a model report card on the state Department of Education website is closely aligned with his school’s suggestion. 

After listening to Lustig’s proposal last year, the board decided to introduce a pilot program at King, which would allow teachers to try out the two-grade system as long as the school, which has half the district’s middle schoolers, still had the old A to F grading in place. 

“We felt that having the pilot in place would help us to see how parents and teachers responded to it,” Lustig said. He said that as the school progressed with the pilot program, Longfellow and Willard became interested in learning more about it and all three schools teamed up to talk about the possibility of introducing the new grades at their institutions. 

“They were not ready to do a pilot, but they wanted us to work through some of the bugs and learn from it,” he said. Lustig said that although 90 percent of teachers had supported the new grading system, it had required some re-structuring and a lot of work. 

King has 50 teachers, and although nobody voted against the new grades, a few took a neutral stand. 

Most parents were enthusiastic, with 75 percent saying in a school-conducted survey that they supported the idea, 12 percent saying they were confused and did not think it would help, and 13 percent expressing indifference. 

“When some parents saw their children were slacking, that they were getting a four in proficiency and a two or three in work habits, they got a chance to tell them to bring up their work habits,” Lustig said. 

Although teachers were nervous about how parents would react at first, Lustig said most families understood the concept quickly because they had gone through a similar standards-based grading system in the Berkeley elementary schools. 

Longfellow Principal Pat Saddler told the board at last week’s meeting that parents had embraced the new grading system, which had been announced by e-mail as well as on the school’s online message board. 

Patrick Collins, a teacher at Longfellow, said that some teachers had been concerned that the new method would be another way of negatively identifying low-achieving students. 

“It’s two grades instead of one, so there was a concern that these kids would be singled out,” he said. 

Robert Ithurburn, principal at Willard, said that although parents at his school had misunderstood the new grades at first, their doubts were cleared after a 25-minute discussion with school staff. 

The school board said the new grades would provide a great opportunity to learn more about a student’s personality, with student director Eve Shames saying that a similar concept should be introduced at Berkeley High School. 

“This is all powerful work,” said director Shirley Issel. “It represents the best kind of partnership with the board, superintendent and the schools. It’s quite an achievement for us as a district.” 

Commending the middle schools on their work, district Superintendent Bill Huyett said that the new system would put more focus on whether a student was actually mastering the subject matter. 

“The only thing left to do now is getting parents used to it,” he said.