Coming back to school this fall has been a welcomed return to normalcy at Social Justice Humanitas Academy, a high school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. But one thing has intentionally not gone “back to normal”: grades.
The discussion around grades started at the school in 2020 when the district announced a district-wide no-fail policy in an attempt to alleviate some anxiety for students facing unprecedented learning disruption due to the coronavirus pandemic. The district then extended the no-fail policy for a second semester as the pandemic continued.
As remote learning continued, teachers at SJHA noticed that without the looming fear of failing, fewer students were logging on to Zoom regularly. More cameras were turned off.
Rather than seeing this as an example of why the “F” option needed to be re-implemented, the faculty and staff at SJHA saw the trend as a general condemnation of the traditional grading system.
“[Grades] were just really good to get compliance. Ok, so we had compliant students,” said Roberto Vega, a teacher and academic coordinator at SJHA. But is the point of school to make sure students simply spend a certain amount of time in their seats, turn in homework on time, come to class when they should, and have well-organized notebooks? What if grades reflected simply how well students knew the content?
“If the kids all pass, then what do we need grades for? And if you don’t need grades, but we still need to teach them, what does that look like? And so we started having some hard discussions,” he said.
After two semesters of remote learning and no Fs, the school decided to completely rethink its grading system. They considered getting rid of grades altogether, but instead they decided on standards-based grading, a system that instead of giving A-F, student grades were based only on the mastery of specific skills (or “standards”). They can demonstrate mastery in multiple ways, not just a test written by the teacher, or they can take assessments multiple times to show mastery if they don’t get it on the first try.
The point is not to just give them a grade and move on, but instead to more accurately and prescriptively show students what they already know well and what they need to work on before they can go to the next level irrespective of other students. When paired with more project-based learning, education and measuring progress becomes more specialized for each student. And crucially, there are no bumps in grades for things like being organized, coming on time, attending class, or turning in homework by the due date. The only thing students are graded on is their demonstration that they have mastered the standard.
SJHA is part of Los Angeles Unified School District’s pilot schools program, which was started over a decade ago as the district’s response to charter schools. Pilot schools are given more autonomy to implement new models and approaches to learning than a more traditional school. For SJHA, one of the first pilot schools, that has meant constantly re-evaluating what’s working where changes need to be made. The pandemic showed them that their grading system was ripe for re-evaluation.
“I felt like if we didn’t do enough to make them feel like they needed to show up because what they were learning was more important than a grade, then maybe we’ve been missing something this whole time,” said Jeff Austin, the principal at SJHA.
So they decided to try a “standards-based grading” system. In the same conceptual family as “mastery” or “competency” -based grading, these systems measure student proficiency of a specific set of tasks or skills. Students must demonstrate mastery or competency of clearly defined skills in order to proceed to the next level. Theoretically, how or on what timeline students demonstrate mastery of a certain standard is more flexible, allowing them to learn at their own pace and in some ways merge their strengths with the standards that they have to learn. Some teachers who use this approach favor student portfolios of work rather than traditional quizzes or tests, arguing that it shows a more complete picture of the student’s work or progress.
Importantly, under a standards-based model students can redo the work until they demonstrate mastery.
The math department had already started implementing some form of standards-based grading a few years ago, when they noticed that students who got good grades in the classroom were not necessarily achieving higher scores on state tests that measured math proficiency. Now the school is looking to expand the practice to all subjects, not for the sake of higher state test scores, but because the paradigm seems to more accurately assess student strengths and needs.
“It takes some adjustment. But usually, by the end of the semester, they have become more competent, and confident, at communicating something like ‘Oh, I’m really good at x,’ or ‘I earned proficiency or mastered this content, but I still have room to grow in this other content area.’ Before, they didn’t know how to have those conversations. They didn’t necessarily have the vocabulary.” said Lucy Adams, a math teacher at SJHA.
“What the standards-based grading was really good for was that it gave them the language to be able to communicate with specificity what they know, what they don’t know, and what they need to work on,” rather than just the letter-grade they received, she said.
Under the new system, students do not get credit for things like attendance or homework meant as practice. This helps negate some of the factors like home life, income level, family stability, and other socioeconomic considerations that often can lead to grade differentiation, but are not necessarily reflective of how students absorb the material. The only thing that matters for their grade is their demonstration of their skills. Homework is still evaluated to help students measure progress, but is not included in the final grade calculation.
Not all of the faculty at SJHA was enthusiastic about the move away from traditional grades. Some asked, if there was no threat of an “F” grade, what would motivate students to do the work? For Austin, it is fundamentally a shift in incentive structure. By showing students why the information was important and what specifically they had mastered and where they needed to improve, students focus on the skills themselves and their progress as learners, rather than simply getting above an F so that they could move on to the next class even if they didn’t fully understand the content.
Still, it took some convincing. “For me, it was making sure that everyone had had a space to be heard,” said Austin. “There’s definitely a fear of change. I think the challenge is making sure that you are working within most people’s value systems. We’re big on values. I think we’re all pretty aligned on that, as far as making our systems here more equitable for our students. And I think everyone sees how this is going that direction. So that’s made it more of a conversation than an argument.”
That’s the SJHA way, it turns out. The school prides itself on constantly building community buy-in. Teachers and administrators collectively write up and agree to their own contracts every year, allowing them to discuss and implement changes like mandatory office hours each week without teachers feeling like a directive is coming from the top. They make sure students have a say, by focusing first on building community and bringing students into conversations about changes that need to be made.
Eugenia Plascencia is a math teacher at the school. Before she joined the faculty, her younger sister was a student at SJHA. Eugenia was constantly impressed by the ways the school made her sister, who struggled in school before attending SJHA, feel heard. It fostered a collaborative community among administrators, teachers, students, and families that felt welcoming. It felt like the kind of school that had inspired her to become a teacher.
“It lived up to everything I thought school could be,” she said. Now as part of the faculty herself, she said the way the school is constantly evolving has only continued to impress her.
“I think our biggest secret is, and I don’t think it’s really a secret, but it’s how much we value relationships with our students. That’s number one over anything else,” she said.
SJHA is not the first school to try standards-based grading. Some districts and even states have pushed for some version of mastery-based learning in recent years, with various degrees of success. When applied from the top-down, teachers can feel overwhelmed and unsure of how to adapt their courses, which leaves students unclear about what it means to achieve academic success. Ultimately some classrooms revert back to traditional methods of teaching and assessment, but with an added layer of confusion. This happened in Maine, where proficiency-based learning was adopted statewide in 2012. But with little guidance, schools struggled to clearly define the proficiency standards, leading to confusion for students and parents. The conversation eventually led to disputes over what constituted “passing”, essentially another way of framing a traditional A-F grading format. After pushback from parents and teachers, Maine rolled back proficiency-based learning in 2018.
On the flip side, when a school is designed around the model and there is adequate buy-in from faculty and the school community, as SJHA has tried to do, the model has been a promising approach to re-inventing the traditional high school. For example, a few new innovative high schools in Philadelphia that are similarly part of a group allowed by the school district to experiment with their teaching models, were founded on the premise of mastery-based learning back in 2014. Teachers were hired and courses were built with this kind of model in mind. After an initial learning curve, the students have often become some of the model’s biggest proponents.
Even then, however, schools can run into issues with the larger systems in which they function. Getting rid of grades completely might be an intriguing pedagogical approach, but most colleges still ask for student transcripts. When Austin and his team debated changing their approach to grades, they considered getting rid of all grades. But after talking to some colleges about their openness to candidates without grades (and instead perhaps a academic narrative written by the student’s teachers), they determined that it would end up hurting student prospects.
Similarly, most school districts (LA included) require that grades be entered into a district-wide gradebook system in a specific format that relies on the A-F system. So something like standards-based grading, which achieves some of the goals of a diminished emphasis on A-F grades but is still legible to the larger systems at work, seemed like a good middle-ground.
Even students have surprising opinions on the matter. When asked whether they should dispose of grades altogether, SJHA students have had nuanced and sometimes divided responses.
“We talked about [getting rid of grades] in my English class,” said Emely Cortez, a senior. “I was stuck in the middle. Because sometimes grades do help with keeping students on track. You could say it does give that like academic validation that helps them to keep going. But at the same time, it also stresses a lot of people out, especially with people who get lower grades, it disappoints them and it makes you unmotivated to keep on going,” she said.
Luckily standards-based grading is a model, not a rulebook. In fact, that is what Austin liked about it. There was enough flexibility in the idea that as a school community they could take the principles of standards-based grading and adapt it to their own situation.
And now is the perfect time to be making these changes, according to SJHA. After the disruption of the past two years, going back to “normal,” said Austin, would be a failure of the system. “This is a great opportunity … to make these shifts, because we all have mentally reset anyways, right?”
This story was generously supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.
Melanie Bavaria is a freelance multimedia education reporter. In addition to Next City, her work has been published in Chalkbeat, The Notebook, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and others. She recently joined the podcast team at Underfunded.