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Old 02-09-2009, 06:32 PM   #1
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Doing Away with Grades and Grade Levels?

Haven't had an education thread in here in awhile, and unfortunately I'm not sure how many of our resident teachers are still really with us, but...This story caught my eye because the program it describes in many ways resembles something the public schools in Mississippi, where I grew up, tried for several years back during the '70s-'80s. I was in one of the pilot classrooms during that time (it was technically a 'multigrade' classroom rather than a 'gradeless' one), and have always remembered those years as being probably my most enjoyable and challenging school experience prior to college. My school only employed this setup for 'gifted and talented' students, though...much, much bigger project to draw an entire school district into it.

Thoughts? Anyone else had any experience with similar classroom setups?

A Colorado school district does away with grade levels

by Amanda Paulson
Christian Science Monitor, February 10

WESTMINSTER, CO. -- School districts across the US are trying to improve student performance and low test scores. But few have taken as radical an approach as Adams 50. For starters, when the elementary and middle-school students come back next fall, there won't be any grade levels--or traditional grades, for that matter. And those are only the most visible changes in a district that, striving to reverse dismal test scores and a soaring dropout rate, is opting for a wholesale reinvention of itself, rather than the incremental reforms usually favored by administrators.

The 10,000-student district in the metropolitan Denver area is at the forefront of a new "standards-based" educational approach that has achieved success in individual schools and in some small districts in Alaska, but has yet to be put to the test on such a large scale in an urban district...The change that's getting by far the most attention is the decision to do away with traditional grade levels--for kids younger than eighth grade, this first year, though the district plans to phase in the reform through high school a year at a time. Ultimately, there will be 10 multiage levels, rather than 12 grades, and students might be in different levels depending on the subject. They'll move up only as they demonstrate mastery of the material.

But Dr. Selleck and others are quick to emphasize that that's only one piece of a radically different, more student-centered, approach to learning--and that it's not the same as tracking, the currently out-of-favor system of grouping students by ability. The district is training teachers to involve students in the lesson plan in a far greater way than before--the students articulate their goals and develop things such as a code of conduct as a classroom. And when children fall short of understanding the material, they keep working at it. The only "acceptable" score to move on to the next lesson is the equivalent of a "B" in normal grading--hopefully showing proficiency and giving kids a better foundation as they move on to more advanced concepts. Advocates sometimes describe it as flipping the traditional system around so that time, rather than mastery of material, is the variable.

While the idea of "standards-based education," as it's often known, has been around for a while, the only public district where it's been tried for any length of time is in Alaska, where the Chugach district--whose 250 students are scattered over 22,000 square miles--went from the lowest performing district in the state to Alaska's highest-performing quartile in five years in the 1990s, a shift the former superintendent, Richard DeLorenzo, attributes to the new philosophy.
"We saw how radical a reinvention needs to happen," says Mr. DeLorenzo, who is serving as a consultant to Adams 50 and is now the founder of the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, which is seeking to spread the model.

In Adams 50, the challenges aren't quite so severe as they were in Chugach, which had only had one college graduate come out of its schools in the 20 years before DeLorenzo implemented the reforms. But the district, which has a 58% graduation rate, has been on an academic watch list for several years now, and has seen a drastically shifting student population in which percentages of minorities, non-English speakers, and low-income kids have shot up. Selleck decided the district needed a massive transformation, and got the OK from the state. This year, the district is beginning to phase in the changes before all the schools switch to the new, gradeless system next year. One elementary school is serving as a pilot program, and many of the 300 or so teachers who have undergone training from DeLorenzo are implementing a modified approach in their classrooms--albeit still in traditional grade levels.

...[But] there are also significant complications. Scheduling is a big one. It's also unclear what will happen if large numbers of kids arrive in high school still unable to demonstrate proficiency in certain subjects, like math, and a bottleneck gets created. Since no student can move forward without a "B" equivalent, it's also essentially impossible for students to have lower than a 3.0 GPA, which could be a challenge to explain to colleges. Still, Selleck says most parents she talks to are enthusiastic, and the district is doing an enormous amount of outreach and education to explain the changes to them.

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Old 02-09-2009, 06:58 PM   #2
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I don't see how this theory will cease the dropout rate. That Alaska example is only one, and I don't think a major city like Denver should do away with grades and grade levels. Too complicated.

I think what should be done to test out this theory is to start a charter high school, rather than rearranging the whole school system.

But even then, I don't think that would prevent the drop-out rate. Kids drop out for various reasons, and school officials need to get to the bottom of why they do before radically changing their schools.

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Old 02-09-2009, 09:09 PM   #3
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Old 02-09-2009, 10:27 PM   #4
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The big issue there is how to make this work in a system where colleges are extremely statistical in their application process. This is a completely unique situation with a completely different set of standards, and will conflict with that system. Applications to colleges generally contain mostly fill-in-the-blank style responses, and don't allow for explanations of how grading works (my school's off-kilter GPA system fucked with a lot of colleges and caused numerous delays). I don't think it's a terrible idea, but in practice there's so much potential for trouble.
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