Change the Scale, Change the School

Report Card, Grading Scale
facebook Change the Scale, Change the Schooltwitter Change the Scale, Change the Schoolgoogle plus Change the Scale, Change the Schoollinkedin Change the Scale, Change the Schoolpinterest Change the Scale, Change the SchoolShare

iStock 000008842352XSmall 1 150x150 Change the Scale, Change the School

There are times when we finally see the light. When years of old thinking is suddenly and instantly swept away and the truth is there right in front of us. Many of us call this an “Aha” moment.

Usually we just turn over and go back to sleep. The truth seems too inconvenient, it might demand too much change and too much effort. And, hell, I’m on summer vacation! But, deep down inside we know we’ve been exposed to a new way of thinking, a shift in perspective that will simply never let us go back to ‘the good old days’.

I had such an experience a few years back. I was fortunate to have my school realize that even principals could use some development (or maybe I should have taken it as an index of job satisfaction) and off I was to Boston for a summer at the Harvard Principals’ Center, ‘vacationing’ as it were at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Of the many excellent presentations (and some not so excellent – sorry Harvard, but your football team isn’t so great either) the one that signaled a ‘paradigm shift’ for me, was a given by Doug Reeves, a renowned educational thinker.

Reeves’ lecture focused attention on grading practices (he has since published his ideas in his book Elements of Grading) in which he proved the toxic nature of many of our grading practices. Other than showing the pure folly of ‘averaging grades’ or the ineffective nature of failing students (see my blog post The Myth of Failure), Reeves forced me to rethink the purpose of grades and ultimately led me to leave Boston with a commitment to change.

By the November reporting period the change had happened. We jettisoned our letter grades and replaced them with a proficiency scale. We reported to parents the following: Exemplary achievement, Mastery, Proficiency, Partial Proficiency and when the students had Not achieved Proficiency.

At first, some staff challenged that nothing had really changed, only the names had changed (to protect…). Many felt that we were just trading an A for an E, a B for a M, etc. They challenged that it was all a game of semantics. But, in reality, everything had changed.

Grade inflation almost completely disappeared. Now that grades actually communicated something real, teachers began to give students exactly that which they had earned, both on the high and low end of the grading scale. Teachers no longer felt that the grade was a reflection of their relationship with the student, but rather a report of their actual achievement. Fascinatingly, students seemed to sense this change and stopped badgering teachers to raise their grades above that which they truly deserved. Teachers could now focus on understanding what constituted proficiency in their subject, look closely at student growth and real progress, and not just record an average of linear performance. And finally, parents loved the fact that the grades told them something useful about how their children were faring in school, and communicated useful information regarding expected proficiency.

A simple change, maybe the road less traveled, but it has made all the difference.

4 Responses to Change the Scale, Change the School

  1. Samara says:

    This sounds basically like standards-based grading, especially in that the purpose of grading should be communicating with students and parents. Did the teachers grade benchmarks of each standard independently? What was done for students who did not achieve proficiency by the end of the school year?

    • Karmi Gross says:


      Thanks for the response. The post only offered a glimpse into the thinking behind scale changes. The significant change that a simple ‘change of scale’ brought about was to have teachers think about what their grades really meant, and what were their reports really meant. Teachers were forced to think long and hard as to what truly constituted mastery or proficiency in their subjects and communicate accordingly to students and parents alike. Grade inflation disappeared literally overnight as teachers looked at grades as an indicator of the progress of the student, instead of an evaluation of their general performance over the semester.

      As for your specific questions;

      Each standard was graded independently, all using the same scale.

      As for students who did not achieve proficiency at the end of the school year: This question begs a longer discussion, based on the reasons the student did not become proficient. There would be a different approach for a student who could not reach the standard than one who simply has little interest in school (and all shades in between). The change in scale gave teachers and students more latitude in dealing with initial failure, helping students regroup and keep their eye on the true prize; mastery. I would only add that there should be some areas in which proficiency is a must for graduation. The nature of that proficiency is a decision to be made by the educators in the school building.

  2. Dale Richardson says:

    I wonder about parental reaction. I know that culturally, my parents are locked into the status of the grade. There is an annual competition for valedictorian as students select courses for weighted grades rather than interest. Parents have gone to the central office over hundredths of a point. I believe in the mastery concepts, but find that such a paradigm shift would wreak havoc in our system.

    • Karmi Gross says:

      Changing a school culture is not an easy thing. Parents are not necessarily your greatest obstacle, many times it is the teachers. (Changing to a proficiency scale in a high school, where GPA’s are needed for college applications is especially challenging.) That said, it can be done. Parents and teachers alike saw how passionate I was about the change, and, after hours of debate and explanation, we adapted the new scale. A parent evening was dedicated to explaining the policy to parents and, with very few exceptions, we received only compliments. In the end result it makes too much damn good sense to let it go. As a principal I lived with the motto, “It’s always the right thing to do the right thing.” Good luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>