A new approach to an old system

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Traditional grade books get a 21st century upgrade

By Kirsten Laskey

The old grade book is being tossed out at the elementary schools in the Los Alamos Public Schools district.

What is taking the place of the former excel spreadsheets is an electronic grade book system called Pinnacle. Just as many students anxiously wait for report cards to see what grades will be revealed, teachers and administrators are working and training to discover what Pinnacle will produce for them.

It’s been a lengthy process – one that started during the 2007-2008 school year when all elementary school teachers were given Robert Marzano’s book titled, “Classroom Assessment and Grading that Works.”  

Work continued last year with monthly report card committee meetings, presentations and a grade meeting held. This year, there has been an online survey conducted, an open invitation was extended to all teachers to discuss and ask questions about Pinnacle and another community meeting held.  

Pinnacle is not an easy thing to sink your teeth into, and LAPS administrators are committed to having all teachers easily digest the new grading system. It will be a two-year process, Assistant Superintendent Kate Thomas said.  

So just what is Pinnacle? It is a software program used to document and record teacher’s assignments and assessments.  Additionally, Pinnacle provides links to essential grade level standards, state benchmarks and performance standards.  

It utilizes a power algorithm to calculate rather than average a student’s scores to give a true and clear picture of a student’s learning and growth. Plus, it identifies measurement topics on the report card with rubrics, which measure those measurement topics. The rubrics create a common assessment across the district. Thomas said the rubrics for reading and math will be written this summer.  Parents will have access to Pinnacle, too. The program will create a customized report card for parents and will be available online. This is a big difference from what was used in the past. “The old reports were completed by entering grades in the spreadsheet and using whatever grade book the teacher had,”  Thomas said.   Plus, it wasn’t web based and did not figure grades for teachers.

However, LAPS has prepared for this change for a long period of time. “Since 1999 parents have been getting grades that say 1, 2, 3 or exceeds. It’s a rubric kind of grading. One would be beginning, two would be nearing proficiency, three was meeting proficiency and exceeds meant exceeding proficiency,” Thomas said.   Although this type of grading has been in play, it is taking on new meanings. For instance, Thomas said now, three means mastery and a four would demonstrate work beyond what was explicitly taught.  

Why is the new system being implemented? The state is requiring it.  The district put out of a bid for a program, and Pinnacle was one of two companies that responded. This is just impacting the elementary schools. The middle school and high school use Power School. Just because it is required, however, doesn’t mean that the new grade book has been easy to understand.  In fact, “This report card has proven to be more difficult than we thought it was going to be to implement,” Thomas said.

 “The difficulties,” she said, “come from a traditional view of figuring grades on a 100-point scale. That is way the country has done grades for years. The most important thing is that students need to master the content standards and benchmarks for each subject.”  For instance, math has five standards for elementary school students. Those standards are algebra, geometry, numbers and operations, measurements, data analysis and probability.  Now, within those standards are benchmarks.  

For math alone, there are 17 benchmarks. “Most teachers worldwide have assigned work to students in those standards and then averaged their grades,” Thomas said. “This grading system uses rubrics to measure the students’ progress against these standards and benchmarks. And so teachers need to be taught how to use these rubrics in accessing students. It’s a change in paradigm. But our teachers are very bright, very capable. The ones who have had the training are very excited about it because this is the way every student will be measured against content standards.”  

The grade system systemizes assessment within the district, she said. Subjectivity is being taken out. For instance, one math teacher rates homework higher than tests and gives out high grades whereas the second math teacher emphasizes test scores more than homework and gives out lower grades. In the new system, this will not occur.  

“That’s what we’re going for,” Thomas said, “a highly reliable school district where we have district rubrics to assess standards and benchmarks.”  

To combat the trials that come with change, the district is working with teachers. Thomas said, “The fact remains that we’re definitely going to train every single teacher by providing them substitutes and training them throughout the year and there will be writing during the summer for reading and math (rubrics) and then next year we’re going to train again before parents are allowed to view it.”  

It’s a lot of work, but the rewards will make it worth it.  Thomas said back when she was teaching English, “I would give my eye teeth to use these rubrics because it would free up my teaching to observe my kids in groups and use it observe a unit that uses different subjects. I wish I could go back to teaching using this grade book system. It really does capture what is really important about student learning – that is the student is learning.”