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Making Sense of the Grade in Middle School

“At Graland Country Day School it is our mission to: Achieve intellectual excellence, build strong character, enrich learning through the arts and athletics, and prepare our students to be engaged citizens and thoughtful leaders.”
Innovation comes in all forms, shapes and sizes, and often times, it takes looking back to innovate for the future. As I embark on my second year as head of Middle School, I begin the school year with a sense of excitement as I reacquaint myself with Graland’s Mission Statement.

Some changes are underway in the Middle School that we hope reshape the way we discuss students and their growth this year and in the future. The first change is with academic reporting. We have moved away from the trimester reporting system to a semester reporting system which will culminate with a final grade at the end of the school year.

The second change involves implementing the recommendations of the grading task force (comprised of parents and teachers) that aimed to better express student growth by separating the concepts of progress/mastery and effort. The task force subsequently created Graland’s Growth Purpose Statement: “The primary purpose of grading at Graland is to empower students to better understand, articulate, and take responsibility for their progression toward mastering learning objectives. The secondary purpose is to communicate that same learning growth to parents.”

As an important step in this direction, Middle School teachers will “articulate clear learning targets using descriptors, rubrics, and exemplars.” These rubrics, discussed at length at Back to School Night in August, will serve as a road map to all students as they make their way through the Middle School. Although the academic and effort rubrics serve as the standard in each of their classes, these rubrics will only be published for core academic classes in October and March, with formal written comments in core academic classes and world language to follow in January and June (at the conclusion of each semester). The academic rubric will focus on clearly defined skills that each student should work to master in their MESH, World Language, and visual and performing arts classes; whereas the effort rubric will focus on the habits of mind in all classes, including PE/athletics. It is through our work with Rick Wormeli, Fair Isn’t Always Equal, that we continue to “mark against standards, not the routes students take to achieve those standards.”

The third change speaks to the notion of empowering student voices as described by Dr. Marvin Berkowitz, co-director of the Center for Character and Citizenship at the University of Missouri-St. Louis: “If we are to prepare our students to be effective participatory members of a democratic society, we need to let them experience the power of their voices…This means we need processes and structures for unlocking student voice in ways that are authentic and safe.”

By allowing our students to use the mid-term rubrics to lead their conferences in October and March, we enable them to take charge of their learning and growth. Rather than simply stating, “I need to work harder,” students can be specific about a particular skill, “I need to annotate while I am reading so I can ask better questions in class.”

Yes, grades are important, and they are also a label that is irrelevant if it isn’t clear how the grades are derived and how students are being assessed on a daily basis. The rubrics will center the conversation and allow for a deeper dive into students’ skills and overall growth while also celebrating the skills they own and identifying areas for potential growth. Simply put, we are implementing best practices. We are giving students permission to take risks in the classroom without the letter grade driving the conversation. The focus on skill development centers the conversation and the emphasis is placed on learning and the intellectual growth of each student.

After all, isn’t this what really matters?
 
Marti has a master’s degree in curriculum and pedagogy from the University of Colorado-Denver. A former English teacher and Denver native, she loves tennis and Sunday dinners with the family.
 
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Graland Country Day School

Graland Country Day School is a private school in Denver, Colorado, serving students in preschool, kindergarten, elementary, and middle school. Founded in Denver in 1924, Graland incorporates a rich, experiential learning approach in a traditional classroom setting, emphasizing the development of globally and socially conscious leaders who excel academically.