I am a district administrator in a mid-size Iowa school district that uses a standards-based grading philosophy.  A number of years ago, I wrote about PowerSchool as a student information system and grade book as a teacher in the context of standards-based grading.   Since that time, teachers in the district across all disciplines and grade levels have started to use standards-based grading.  This system change has introduced a new set of questions about student information systems and grade books that I will attempt to describe in the following paragraphs.

In our elementary building, we have been communicating student learning through a standards-based report card for the past twenty or so years.  No letter grades are assigned.  We use an E (exceeding), P (proficient), D (developing) and AC (area of concern) scale for each student target.

Teachers communicate with parents individually throughout the school year through Friday Folders, phone calls, emails and parent/teacher conferences.  For a variety of reasons, we do not use a student information system for the purpose of communicating student learning.

In our middle school and high school, we transitioned to a standards-based grading philosophy system-wide several years ago.  Prior to this change, we had asked our parents to sign-up for daily or weekly email progress reports and emphasized a need to look for assignments in which their student may not have turned in.  The grades reported online could be viewed as a timeline of activities and events written in ink.  Parents may have asked teachers questions such as...
  • What can my daughter do to raise her grade?
  • Will there be any extra credit available in this class?
  • Can my son turn in his missing Civil War project for partial credit?
  • Is there any way my child can re-do the Chapter 3 Project?
Today, our grade books report students' current level of learning.  In other words information is written in pencil using a new metaphor: a barometer or thermometer sharing where a student's strengths and weaknesses currently are in the content area.  We encourage our parents to ask questions such as...
  • When is the next opportunity to reassess on [standard]?
  • When was the last time my student was assessed on [standard]?
  • What practice opportunities are available for my son to practice [standard]?
  • What standards does my daughter still need to learn?
We use a 4, 3.5, 3, 2, 1 scale with accompanying narratives listed below.
Standards are converted to letter grades in each course.  For example, if there were ten standards in a grading period and a student earned 4's on all of the standards except for one in which she earned a 3, the final grade would be 39/40 = 97.5% translated into an "A" using 90, 80, 70, 60 cutoffs.   A subset of our teachers would prefer not to average the standards into a final letter grade, because it may give off a "points chasing" aura for some students in the midst of a system that is designed to focus on learning.  Aside from several pilots, our system continues to use this final grade conversion method, because it plays well with our student information system's grade book.  

Supplementary grade books
In addition to contacting our student information system *vendor to share our concern, a committee of teachers was charged with looking into solutions, including by not limited to alternative grade books.  Several criteria for a successful grade book have been suggested by the committee:
  • visually appealing way for students and parents to easily identify students' current strengths and weaknesses;
  • ability to sync with student information system (class rosters, course names, current grades) on a daily basis, so that teachers do not have to duplicate data entry, keep up with schedule changes, etc;
  • and most importantly, alternative ways to convert standards into a final grade, calculated by the grade book.
Before grade book vendors start emailing or leaving comments on this post, we have looked at a number of your products already, however none of them have met our expectations(!).  The purpose of this post is not to throw these vendors under the bus, but instead to lament on the complex relationship between standards-based grading, student information systems and supplementary grade books.  In other words, it is not as easy as it sounds to come up with a solution that simultaneously meets our teacher, student, parent, district and *Department of Education needs.  

Looking back, I am very happy the stakeholders in my district have not let perfect get in the way of progress.  We still have work to do in the way we communicate student learning, however we're not sure if any supplementary grade books currently available are the solution.  

*You may be wondering why we do not switch student information systems (SiS).  In Iowa, we are required to submit a myriad of data to the Department of Education three times each year.  This data comes from a student information system extract.  Currently, three SiS are supported by the Iowa Department of Education.  In conversation with districts who use the other two, I have confirmed a similar grade book feature set, therefore switching SiS would not be a significant improvement.