Before standards-based grading, Egan Junior High held academic rigor high, trumpeting its 4.0 honor roll students and boasting high scores on standardized tests. But after Egan adopted the new grading system last year, honor rolls no longer existed. Aligned to the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), Egan’s grading standards have slowed down curriculum for many students.
The numerical 4 through 1 grading system places the majority of the focus on major assignments, and other grade components no longer account for significant credit. As a result, overall workload has decreased, and so has more in-depth and developed learning. Without an emphasis on facets like homework, less material can be taught.
Teachers intend for the new curriculum to prioritize struggling students, which means that during classes, material is re-taught until all students are on an equal footing. Consequently, higher-achieving students are learning concepts that they may have already mastered which, as freshman Natalie Tran comments, makes classes “really boring.”
Indeed, as one Egan teacher says, “eventually a lot of the kids reach a .”
The new grading limits the incentive for students to try harder. The numerical grading gives students less information than percentage grades — the scale collapsed to four values instead of 100 percentage points. Students with a 4, which SBAC testing shows should be the majority of the school, have no next step.
“[At Egan], you could get things wrong and still get a 4,” Natalie said. “It was just a 4, and there’s no decimals or anything. With percentage grading, I feel a lot more comfortable, because [say] I got a 96 on an assignment, but I messed up on something, and I can fix that to get a 100. With Common Core, you get a 4, so you don’t care as much.”
Among other parts of the policy, the new system has severely lessened the importance of homework.
“Kids intuitively know homework is not being graded,” Egan history teacher Jon Hayman said in an interview last year. “Consequently our first homework assignment [had] approximately a 50 percent turn-in rate. I think [a few years ago] it was about 90 percent.”
Former Egan students report that some classes have even opted to give no homework whatsoever, and for others the lack of percentages makes it difficult to understand how much outside classwork counts toward the final grade.
For high-achieving students, the curriculum didn’t necessitate homework — in-class projects and tests were easily accomplished. Many, as freshman Brandon Gottlieb said, “slacked off until the final because the grade you get on that assessment is [basically] the grade you get in the class.”
More, the lack of incentive to complete homework makes students who can naturally absorb teachers’ lessons easily more likely to succeed at Egan. Without homework, those who struggle to digest knowledge and skills during class only find academics more difficult.
“This class we have now is pretty sharp, so it’s kind of hard to generalize, but I think that kids that aren’t doing the work are struggling,” Hayman said in a recent interview. “My guess is the eighth grade mind works like, ‘Well if he’s not going to check it, I’m not going to do it.’”
Standards-based grading goals are rooted in a desire to shift focus from solely grades to a genuine desire to learn. Without the typical “A” through “F” scale, Egan hopes that students are intrinsically motivated. Moreover, they hope that homework will move toward being less busywork and more useful.
“The reason we are going to standards-based grading is to take their mind off [the grade],” an anonymous Egan teacher said. “[We want] kids to really get into this mentality that it’s important to actually understand this. [Learning] is not something you just do and then forget.”
While they acknowledge the issues with homework, Egan teachers believe that with more time, students will begin to acclimate to the new system.
“I think that everybody needs more time to get used to the policy,” Egan history teacher Riley Haggin said. “I’ve talked to friends in other places and other schools who are on the standards-based grading policy and a lot of them said it takes three or four years for the students and the teachers to get used to [the system]. After the three or four years, it seems everyone is kind of on the same page.”
Egan Principal Keith Rocha defends the system as helping students to take “ownership of their learning.” But Rocha said Egan has not collected date on whether “homework has gone down” or evidence in general of lower standards.
Considering students that have graduated from Egan feel unprepared due to new standards, teachers believe more data collection is warranted.
“At some point we will need to do some check in with the ninth graders and 10th graders and see how they’re adjusting,” Haggin said.
Coming to Los Altos, Natalie found what she calls a more “rigorous” course load. And to freshman Arya Sastry and her friends, Los Altos homework was “a punch in the stomach.” The load was starkly different than at Egan.
Freshman teachers at Los Altos, too, have noticed a change in students’ understanding of material.
“I’m seeing a lot less [basic] writing skills,” English teacher Michael Smith said. “[I’m seeing a lot less] of the ability to spell, the ability to construct a complete sentence and the ability to use a punctuation properly.”
Beyond skills, teachers like Smith have noticed a decrease in overall work ethic and “attention to detail,” and an increase in “carelessness.” After seeing consistently less homework being done, history teacher Christa Wemmer asked her World Studies class about this trend she had seen.
“I haven’t completely researched and looked at all the grades, but two or three students raised their hand and said, ‘We stopped doing homework at Egan when they went to standards-based Grading,” Wemmer said. “[Grades] had been based on major projects or assessments, and so students kind of let those homework habits go.”
For students at the top, completing homework is often necessary for success in these assignments. It’s no wonder that teachers like Wemmer have seen lower homework grades than usual in her classes from high-achieving students who take classes like Algebra 2 Honors.
Egan’s lowering standards seems to leave students underprepared at the footsteps of high school.
On the other hand, former Egan student senior Sophia Taglio, who attended before the policy change, said she felt “over-prepared.”
“With homework there needs to be an end goal that students are able to see,” Sophia said. “Without something motivating us to do the work, we’re not going to want to do [homework] to the best of our abilities. If we’re able to understand the importance of the work then we are more motivated to actually do it.”
At the point where many other external motivations have been removed, there seems to be less of a reason for Egan students to achieve.
“They took away honor rolls and [volunteer awards], and we teachers thought, ‘Oh maybe that’s not a good idea cause we need something for the kids to at look forward to and get recognition for,” an anonymous Egan teacher said.
As Egan and the Los Altos School District in general look to evaluate this transition, the lowering standards seem to be a focal point for necessary discussion.
“It was hard to adjust for a lot of people,” Arya said. “Like I know my friends, they were like really stressed and really overwhelmed because they were used to it being so easy.”