Merging Current Practices with a Standards-Based Mindset

About 7 years ago, we began exploring a somewhat foreign concept at our school – standards-based grading. Gradually, we have worked our way through much research, trial and error with particular components of SBG, and implementation of a whole new way of “doing” school. The core of our belief system at White Plains Middle School has been transformed. We now have content grades that actually reflect content knowledge. We have students who no longer believe they “can’t do math” but understand that within the math class they have a hard time placing integers on a number line. We have parents who call and ask us what their children can do to master appositives instead of calling to ask what extra credit is available for English class. TRANSFORMED. This road has been a long, tiresome road; however, now that we have traveled this road we can never go back to what we were before.

We believe in re-takes on tests. It’s not a matter of giving the same test back to the student 15 times in order for him to finally eliminate all of the wrong answers and make a passing grade. It is an entire process that has been specifically designed to increase the content knowledge of our students. If a student wishes to demonstrate greater content knowledge than what he/she showed on an assessment, the student is given an opportunity to do so – any student, not just failing students. Students have to put in some extra work in order to be eligible to retest. Teachers have designed re-do packets that reinforce the skill the student is lacking. (Re-do packets are differentiated depending on the student’s current content knowledge.) Students must successfully complete this packet, and then, through either individual or small group instruction, show the teacher growth in that skill. Once all of this has taken place, a student may take another assessment to demonstrate his/her increased content knowledge.

We believe in separating non-content factors from content factors when determining a student’s grade. Each student’s math grade at White Plains Middle School is an accurate representation of his/her knowledge of the math content that has been assessed. We do not take points of off a Social Studies project because it was two days late. We do, however, deduct work skills points from that student. We do not put a zero in the grade book for a student who does not turn in English homework. We do, however, assign the child to High Expectations and deduct a work skills point. So what are these work skills? Every child in our school starts each nine-week grading period with a 100 in work skills. Instead of diluting or inflating our content grades for non-content issues (late work, unable to work in groups, organization, etc.), we have a separate grade we call Work Skills. This grade appears on the report card just as the math, reading, English, social studies, science, and physical education grades do. This grade can prevent a student from being on the honor roll just as all content grades can do. Work skills increase accountability and teach that deadlines, hard work, and working with others are all extremely important skills to possess. This allows us to target students’ interferences MUCH more accurately. We now know if a child has a content interference or a work skills interference.

We believe knowing what you know and what you don’t know is far more empowering than just knowing your numeric grade. Each content teacher in every grade level has designed checklists with specific standards taught in each of the nine-week grading periods. These skills checklists are attached to every child’s report card with each standard marked “mastered” or “not mastered”. Students can now talk to teachers about very specific standards that are causing them confusion. Parents are now able to see what their child has mastered in each class instead of just seeing an A, B, C, etc. on the report card. The conversations between teachers and students are incredible to witness. The phone calls and emails we get from parents are so unusual in that they are focused on a very specific question/concern about a very specific standard. It is AMAZING!!!

We believe that it is unacceptable to choose not to complete an assignment. Students who have a missing assignment or who have turned in a less than acceptable assignment get the opportunity to complete the work correctly on Wednesday afternoons during High Expectations. If a student is missing work, a letter goes home on Monday to let the parent know transportation will be needed on Wednesday. Students report to the library on Wednesday afternoons for an hour after school to work with a certified teacher to complete all missing/incomplete assignments.

Students at WPM are able to tell you what they know and what they don’t know. They understand it takes hard work and ability to succeed. They know they will be held accountable for meeting our expectations. Words can’t be put on this paper to accurately describe what this looks like in action. The feeling you get from witnessing all of this is simply indescribable. WPM will continue to grow and change and better the educational experience for our students. While our transformation so far has been great, we aren’t finished yet!

Courtney Wilburn is principal of White Plains Middle School, 2018 Alabama Middle School Principal of the Year, and a CLAS New Principal Mentor

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