Ed­u­ca­tors set sights on elim­i­nat­ing A-F grad­ing sys­tem

Group aims to ditch let­ter grades with more com­plete look at stu­dent abil­ity

The Mercury News - - Front Page - By Sharon Noguchi snoguchi@ba­yare­anews­group.com

Imag­ine high school with­out grades, transcripts with­out A’s, B’s or F’s, and col­lege ap­pli­ca­tions with­out grade-point av­er­ages.

It’s not a wild dream: It’s a goal more than 120 of the na­tion’s elite high schools have come to­gether to achieve.

“The grad­ing sys­tem is im­plod­ing on it­self. When you get to the point where 75 per­cent of kids have a 4.0 grade-point av­er­age, that’s mean­ing­less,” said Than Healy, head of Menlo

School, a pri­vate col­lege prep high school in Ather­ton. “All that tells the kids is that noth­ing but an A is ac­cept­able.”

Stu­dents end up fo­cus­ing more on the grade than on ed­u­ca­tion, he said. “That’s all back­ward.”

In a re­gion brim­ming with high-achiev­ing stu­dents and mind­ful of the tragic toll of ado­les­cent stress, sev­eral elite schools have signed on.

“The Bay Area is ground zero in stress and anx­i­ety and self-harm” among stu­dents, Healy said. “This is a na­tional con­ver­sa­tion whose time has come.”

As a rem­edy, Menlo and other pri­vate schools from Danville to Palo Alto hope to dump grades and cre­ate a dig­i­tal, an­no­tated tran­script that might reflect more than a stu­dent’s mas­tery of top­ics in math, sci­ence and read­ing. The tran­script might also mea­sure aca­demic growth as well as var­i­ous skills and traits like col­lab­o­ra­tion, en­trepreneur­ship, em­pa­thy, hon­esty and cre­ativ­ity.

Each tran­script’s “home page” would be linked to ex­am­ples of the stu­dent’s ac­tual work and achieve­ments. Just a few months old, the Mas­tery Tran­script Con­sor­tium has lofty goals and a long time­line. It may take five to seven years to agree on a re­place­ment for the five-let­ter grad­ing sys­tem that was in­vented 123 years ago at Mount Holyoke Col­lege in Mas­sachusetts.

“The prob­lem with grades is that they are widely in­con­sis­tent from one class­room to an­other,” said Sal Khan, founder and CEO of Khan Academy, whose fledg­ling Khan Lab School in Moun­tain View is a con­sor­tium mem­ber. Grades, he said, re­in­force a “fixed mind­set”: “It tells stu­dents, you are a C stu­dent or you are an A stu­dent.” Af­ter a while of be­ing la­beled sub­par, stu­dents check out.

In­stead, he said the goal is to help them mas­ter con­tent with­out judg­ing them. Khan would like to replace the cur­rent ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that dic­tates a pro­gres­sion through grades by age with one that shows stu­dents achiev­ing pro­fi­ciency as they ad­vance.

Stu­dents and teach­ers know that GPAs don’t reflect a stu­dent’s worth, and grades don’t con­vey the ef­fort, growth and achieve­ment in an as­sign­ment, class or se­mes­ter. But some worry that the in­ten­si­fy­ing com­pe­ti­tion for col­lege ac­cep­tance has forced kids to zero in on GPAs, how­ever flawed a mea­sure that may be.

“An A in Ap­plied En­gi­neer­ing should carry a lot of weight,” said Menlo se­nior Laikh Te­wari about one of his school’s most rig­or­ous elec­tives. But be­cause it’s not an ad­vanced-place­ment class, a grade from that class is not given ex­tra weight in GPA cal­cu­la­tion. “Some col­lege reps un­der­stand that and some do not,” he said.

Con­sor­tium mem­bers hope to elim­i­nate what they see as toxic hy­per­com­pe­ti­tion among stu­dents — and the be­lief that only a string of A’s will earn them a ticket to their col­lege of choice.

Grad­ing “cre­ates a false sense of ob­jec­tiv­ity and a false sense of pre­ci­sion that is demon­stra­bly wrong,” said Scott Looney, founder and board chair of the Mas­tery Tran­script Con­sor­tium. “Most peo­ple who spend their lives help­ing kids grow know there’s some­thing wrong with pit­ting them against each other.”

That may be a head­scratcher for an adult world that only has known A to F, bell curves and class rank­ing.

But Looney said with the av­er­age high school grade near a B-plus, the five-point scale has been cor­rupted. “Now we have kids killing them­selves in school over dif­fer­ences be­tween an A-mi­nus and an A. Frankly, for those of us who work with high school kids, it is com­pletely in­sane,” said Looney, who is also head of Hawken School, near Cleve­land, Ohio.

Stan­ford Univer­sity’s Denise Clark Pope, a lead­ing critic of high school-in­duced stress in stu­dents, ap­plauds the con­sor­tium’s goals. “This is go­ing to be a much more ac­cu­rate por­trayal of what stu­dents are able to do.” In the real world, she pointed out, job ap­pli­cants don’t present let­ter grades from pre­vi­ous jobs. In­stead, em­ploy­ers in­ter­view, look at pre­vi­ous work and talk to past em­ploy­ers.

The con­sor­tium plans to reach out to col­leges to en­sure that their cre­ation will be ac­cepted in ad­mis­sion of­fices. The group has agreed that a new tran­script will not in­clude grades and will al­low each school to choose its own ar­eas to eval­u­ate, but the for­mat will be uni­form. That means the new tran­script will look about the same, whether from the Athe­nian School in Danville, Castilleja in Palo Alto, Head­Royce in Oak­land or Menlo — all con­sor­tium mem­bers — pro­vided they adopt what­ever pro­posal is pro­duced.

The key is for col­leges to buy into the new, more com­pli­cated tran­script.

“Can we get col­leges to look in a more tex­tured way, to be able to un­der­stand stu­dents, be­yond grades and test scores?” said Eric Niles, Athe­nian’s head of school.

Once the con­sor­tium paves the way, its mem­bers be­lieve pub­lic schools will fol­low. At stake, ad­vo­cates say, is the in­tegrity of schools’ eval­u­a­tion as well as stu­dent heath.

But can a mul­ti­lay­ered eval­u­a­tion em­braced by a pri­vate school like Athe­nian, with av­er­age class sizes of 14 and an av­er­age teacher load of four classes, be man­age­able for pub­lic school teach­ers jug­gling 175 stu­dents in five classes?

Khan thinks so, pos­si­bly by in­volv­ing peer re­view and elec­tronic feed­back. He noted that Khan Academy is help­ing teach­ers in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries man­age very large classes of chil­dren at vary­ing lev­els. The tools, he said, are avail­able to make mas­tery learn­ing and eval­u­a­tion prac­ti­cal.

A num­ber of pro­gres­sive mid­dle schools in the area al­ready em­brace mas­tery or al­ter­na­tive transcripts, such as the Nueva School in Hills­bor­ough and the Girls’ Mid­dle School in Palo Alto. The Khan school is­sues re­port cards for its 140 stu­dents, ages 5 to 15, that show five lev­els of mas­tery for ev­ery skill, ob­jec­tive and for char­ac­ter traits.

“Twenty years in the fu­ture,” Khan said, “I am con­fi­dent when stu­dents ap­ply to col­lege, their transcripts will look a lot more like Khan Lab School or the Mas­tery Tran­script Con­sor­tium than what they do now.”

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