Skip to main content

Sonoma Family Life Magazine

Making the Grade

By Cate Woods

Editor’s note: Cotati–Rohnert Park Unified School District (CRPUSD) has introduced a new grading system, about which the Press Democrat recently ran an article. In this issue, CRPUSD Superintendent Robert Haley (page 12) and teacher Cate Woods respond to the article and further explain the grading system. We invite you to express your opinion on our Facebook page, or e-mail your thoughts to [email protected]

I am an English teacher at Technology High School in Rohnert Park, and I would like to expand upon the recent Press Democrat article about grading in CRPUSD. What may not have come through, amid all the confusion, is the reasoning behind our search for a better way to grade students.

For about the last 15 years, teachers have been using electronic grading programs to keep track of grades. While there are many benefits to the programs, they have an unintended consequence: to report a simple average of scores entered rather than examine students’ grade trends, the more intuitive method. Add this phenomenon to the increased rigor in the Common Core State Standards, and the changes demand new grading policies.

I (along with many of my colleagues) still use the regular scale, in which 100–90 is an A, 89–80 is a B, 79–70 is a C, 69–60 is a D. And yes, 60–50 is an F. However, we have effectively blocked out the bottom 50% of the scale, not feeling that F minuses are crucial to student motivation.

Most of my students’ grades are not different this year, but the rare student who had a 22% under the old system would have bottomed out at 50% this year. It’s still an F, and clearly the student is still on our radar as needing intervention.

To illustrate further, let’s look at two students. Student X comes to my English class with excellent skills and knowledge. From the beginning of the semester to the end, she consistently scores in the 90% range. At the end of the semester, her grade is calculated as a well-earned A.

Now let’s look at student Y. Through no fault of her own and for a myriad of possible reasons, she comes to my English class with a deficit of skills in reading, writing, and even staying organized. Her early assignments earn abysmal grades, and she determines to do better. Through our school’s various interventions—and especially through her own hard work—she masters the skills being taught in my class. By the end of the semester, she is scoring in the high 80s on assessments similar to the ones she failed earlier.

Under what logic should her early, low grades be counted against her? Isn’t it fair to give her a grade reflective of her mastery of the class material?

This conundrum has driven professionals in CRPUSD to explore solutions that systematically honor the learning and effort of our students. One solution we have found is the one illustrated above: to block out the bottom 50% of the grade scale. Students do not see “50” on their grade reports when they score low or fail to turn in their work, but rather an I (incomplete) or an M (missing). The benefits of this practice are many, but cannot be explained without examples and calculations too lengthy for this forum.

Another new method is equal interval grading, which was not invented in our district, but is advocated by educational leaders nationwide. This grading policy was the subject of a recent article in the Press Democrat. It is important to note that in the 0–4 scale, while a 4 is translated as an A, it is not based on students averaging 80% on their work. Rather, the grade comes from one of many new Common Core rubrics on which it is very difficult to earn a 4. Anyone who sees the 4-point rubric I use to grade writing assignments knows immediately that a student is not in any danger of getting an easy A.

We believe in doing whatever we can to hold students accountable without crushing their motivation, even as we navigate these changing educational times and the sting of negative opinions from people who have not yet seen this play out in schools.

After 12 years with CRPUSD, I consider the vast majority of my colleagues at every level to be excellent, dedicated professionals who care about students, often to the point of great personal sacrifice.

Students are our future. So let’s be on the same side—their side.

Cate Woods teaches English at Technology High School in the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District.