Cotati-Rohnert Park schools officials defend new grading scales

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Under an onslaught of questions and concern about their new grading policy, Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District officials have taken to media outlets and social media to defend the district’s practices, saying they align with top standards and steer students toward success more effectively than the traditional scale.

The district’s new grading standards, passed on a 5-0 vote in June, were arrived at through discussions involving administrators and teachers, said Superintendent Robert Haley, who on Monday appeared on two radio shows and a TV news segment explaining and defending the policy.

In an interview Tuesday, Haley and other district officials said the district endorses a grading methodology known as equal interval. But they said latitude is given to different schools on which of several scales to use, and further flexibility to teachers who can “customize” the scales to suit their needs, meaning each teacher can develop and use their own grading scale within the equal interval matrix.

The broad discretion given teachers has led to a slew of different grading scales, confusing some parents and even teachers in the district. At Rancho Cotate High School alone, according to a review of QuickSchools, the school management software system the district uses, there are five different grading scales, each one of which a teacher can customize.

Under an equal interval scale in which, for example, grades progressed in increments of 10 from 50 to 100, an F would be from 50 to 60, but in a traditional scale, students receive an F for a score of 0 to 59. By increasing the lowest possible score for an F, the new system makes it easier, the policy’s proponents say, for a failing student to work their way back into passing range.

The policy “raised the floor” so that struggling students can focus as much on learning as on trying to climb out of a deep failing grade range, officials said.

“We focused on the grading philosophy that would have the kids focused on learning rather than the point-getting,” said Scott Johnson, principal of Lawrence Jones Middle School.

Johnson sat on a task force that developed the new policy, a process that involved “dozens of teachers” along with administrators, Haley said.

“In devising the policy, some of the main discussion of the task force really had to do with the overall philosophy of grading,” Haley said. “How are we motivating students, how are we grading students?

“How are we assessing mastery versus compliance … am I getting an A simply because I’m turning in the homework, or am I getting an A because I’ve demonstrated mastery of the topic at hand?”

The district’s response was driven by a Press Democrat story Thursday that reported on one of several grading scales being used at the district.

In that scale, grades rise in 20-point increments. For example, scores of 20 to 40 percentage points earn D- through D+ grades — and so on, up the ladder. Students get an A- for scoring between 80 and 85. That, combined with assertions by teachers that even missing work is assigned 50 percent, raised a furor.

Haley has furiously criticized the report. He said the statement that missing work receives a 50 percent is “completely false.” Assigning 50 percent for missing work while using the 100 point scale, without “converting it” is “not sanctioned” by the district.

But grading sheets provided by two teachers in the district, with student names redacted, and using scales other than the 1-to-100 scale that was reported about Thursday, appear to support the assertions of teachers who object to the new grading policy.

On one, from Rancho Cotate High, the teacher, who uses a scale named simply “Equal Interval,” entered “N”, for missing work for which the deadline has passed. QuickSchools, populated the grade column with a C.

In another example, from Tech Middle School, the teacher was using what is called the “5 point grading scale” It goes from 0 to 5, with 0 to 0.9 being an F and 4 to 5 being the A range.

In one column totaling the scores of a math test, the average of the scores the teacher entered is given as 6/10. The average grade, in the column populated by QuickSchools software, is B-.

School administrators say teachers receiving those results — essentially grades that are higher than what they would have been for the same work under a traditional model — are just doing it wrong.

“What’s happening is they’re using the grading scale incorrectly,” said Ashley Tatman, Tech Middle School’s principal. “It goes back to the equal intervals — “you can’t do a straight conversion over. You have to adjust it.”

Also, administrators argue, it is teachers who led the process of designing the scales.

“There’s not an administrator, there’s not a school board member, there’s no one in the system in management that’s created a grade scale … QuickSchools is just a calculator,” said Amie Carter, principal of Rancho Cotate High.

“If that’s happening,” she said, referring to the problematic grade sheets, “then that teacher has typed in a grade scale, they’ve created a grade scale that is not aligned with our policy.”

That assertion echoes somewhat a statement Johnson posted on Facebook over the weekend, responding to the outcry.

In it, Johnson said that at his school, Lawrence Jones Middle School, teachers were asked to choose between “three grade scale models.”

He said in the post, that a teacher quoted in Thursday’s story, Lawrence Jones Middle School math and science teacher Peter Dudik, “chose a scale against my recommendation and is not happy with it.

“This is part of the exploring and innovating that was encouraged in the first trimester. Ultimately, teachers have final say over their grades despite a scale chosen,” Johnson said.

On Tuesday, asked why he offered as an option a scale he would not recommend, Johnson said: “I wanted to be able to respect teachers’ decisions and allow them to innovate and kind of explore which grading scale they wanted to use that was equal interval, and in hindsight I probably should have just given one.”

Dudik said Tuesday that there was no direction given regarding which scale was preferred, and that he chose the 100 point equal interval scale — where 0 to 20 equals F up to 80-100 equals A — because after 20 years of teaching he was used to a 100 point percentage scale.

“It wasn’t not recommended. Nothing was recommended, We were given three options and that was what we could use,” Dudik said.

He described the system as unwieldy at best and said that in order for him to assign grades he believes a student deserves, he has to adjust the system each time there is a new score to be entered.

“There’s no conversion tool, it’s all up to us to spend our time doing something that we could do in minimal time under the old system,” he said.

Many parents, meanwhile, say they are baffled.

“I’ve talked to many different teachers and many parents and many things have been explained to me — as a parent I just don’t know what’s going on,” said Laurie Williams, who has two children in the district. “I think there’s a lot of confusion and not just with parents but with teachers, too.”

She added: “It sounds very experimental. Great, we’re experimenting with our kids’ futures.”

Dan Shacklett, a Santa Rosa police officer with three children in the school district, said he worries that the new system “lowers the bar” and that the district launched the new policy poorly.

“I have nothing but respect for the teachers and if they feel this system is viable, then great,” he said. “But there’s a process to bring it in, in my opinion.”

Carter, the Rancho Cotate High principal, said the district acted to create an environment and a system that would lift up students who might otherwise give up.

“I’ve sat across the desk from children in the middle of the semester, I’m talking to them about how to turn things around, and how to get engaged — they might realize, ‘I want to go to the military,’ ‘I feel like I’m ready to change this around’ — and we’ll pull up their grade and that child will understand that, mathematically, they‘re out of the game,” Carter said. “And so what’s that child going to do for the rest of the semester?”

Under the equal interval system she said, “They still have to work double time, but they’re not mathematically out of the game.”

Staff Writer Jeremy Hay blogs about education at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach him at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jeremyhay

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