FARGO — Starting next fall, Fargo Public Schools is looking to make changes to report cards for sixth-grade students.
Currently, Fargo middle school students — those in grades 6-8 — receive traditional letter grades as a way of assessing their learning progress.
But beginning with the next school year, report cards for the district's sixth-graders will contain information regarding how well students are meeting what are called "essential learning outcomes," according to Bob Grosz, the district's assistant superintendent for teaching and learning for the secondary level.
Grosz said it is unclear at this point whether the report cards given to next year's sixth-graders will include letter grades as part of their assessment, or mostly numbers that reflect a student's level of progress.
A shift away from letter grades began more than a decade ago on a national level, particularly in the elementary grades, as schools across the country began incorporating instructional standards, many crafted by local and state agencies, into their report cards.
In general, when it comes to what is often referred to as standards-based grading the idea goes like this: Rather than receiving a single letter grade in a given subject, students are judged on a scale of 1-4 in several fields related to that subject.
For example, a 1 indicates that with help a student is beginning to learn essential learning outcomes, while a 4 confirms that a student has advanced beyond basic essential learning outcomes.
Proponents of standards-based grading say it helps teachers, students and parents better define how a student is doing and what help they need to do better.
Elementary schools across the U.S. began switching to standards-based grading more than a decade ago, and Fargo adopted the approach in elementary classes a number of years ago.
The story is similar in the West Fargo School District, where numerical grading is used at the elementary and middle-school levels, but letter grades remain in use at the high school level.
It's the sixth year of standards-based grading at the elementary level in West Fargo and the third year of standards-based grading at the middle school level. The transition from letter grades to numbers occurred gradually, one grade at a time.
But not everyone in the school district is happy with the trend.
'Why change things?'
Ryan O'Donnell, a parent with children in the West Fargo School District, recently penned a letter to the editor published in The Forum that took aim at changes in report cards and software applications the district uses to keep parents informed of student progress.
The letter states that the district's reporting software has not worked consistently and leaves parents wondering how their children are progressing with their studies.
The letter also laments the departure of letter grades from the district's elementary and middle schools.
"I bring this up for one reason only," O'Donnell wrote, asserting that "sometimes, things as they are, work fine."
O'Donnell said there were no issues "with the ABDCF grading system, which had been used since the latter part of the 19th century.
"Why change things?" O'Donnell added. "All these changes have only served to frustrate parents to the point of throwing in the towel."
Heather Leas, spokeswoman for the West Fargo School District, acknowledged there have been issues with software the district uses to keep parents informed of the standards-based reporting system.
"Unfortunately, we have experienced technical difficulties throughout this transition at the middle (school) level," Leas said, adding that the district originally went with a program called PowerSchool, a system created fairly recently that she said appeared to meet the district's needs.
"After struggling with that system for two years," Leas said, "we made the decision in August to move our reporting and communication to Schoology, our learning management system. Unfortunately, that system has been repeatedly delayed in completion throughout the fall."
Leas said the company behind Schoology was recently purchased by PowerSchool, and she said the district is working "to have a system that allows our teachers to efficiently record student assignments and performance, as well as allows frequent parent access to monitor student progress."
Leas said the benefits of standards-based grading arise from breaking down each course into several categories, "so that learners are getting more accurate, meaningful, actionable feedback. "
For example, she said, rather than receiving one grade in language arts, learners earn a score in comprehension, communication, presentation, critical thinking, vocabulary, writing content, and writing conventions.
"Both the teacher and the learner are guided in each grading period by the district proficiency scale," Leas said.
According to Leas, the traditional letter grading system combined all components of a course into one average score, something she said provides very little information about where a student can improve, or where a learner is excelling.
"The standards-based grading system has been adopted to help support learning and foster a growth mindset in our students," Leas said, adding that the change is having a positive impact on creating more meaningful assessments and feedback for students.
"It is a change for everyone and change always requires an adjustment period," Leas said.
In Moorhead Area Public Schools, traditional letter grades are still used in grades 9-12. Standards-based grading using numbers is the assessment approach used in grades K-6.
The switch to standards-based grading at the elementary level took place nearly a decade ago with the implementation of Common Core state standards.
For the past couple of years, grades 7-8 have been transitioning away from letter grades and toward standards-based grading, according to Brenda Richman, executive director of community engagement and public relations for Moorhead schools.
She said the process of moving away from letter grades involves examining past grading practices and exploring ways the district can better communicate success, encourage growth and maintain a level of accountability with students.
Richman said staff also completed a book study of "Grading from the Inside Out" and its author, Tom Schimmer, conducted staff workshops and parent seminars.
"Our goal at all levels is that students receive feedback-based grading that will reflect a student’s mastery of content standards. This ultimately helps us to know how to best develop the maximum potential of every learner," Richman said, adding that the district has no plans to eliminate letter grades at the high school level.
In Fargo, once the transition to standards-based grading occurs next fall at the sixth-grade level, a similar transition will occur in seventh-grade classes in the 2021-22 school year.
The transition will move to Fargo's eighth-grade classes in the 2022-23 school year.
Then, starting in the 2023 school year and beyond, the plan is for high school students to receive both a letter grade and feedback about essential learning outcomes, according to Grosz. Letter grades will continue to be used at the high school level for the foreseeable future, as they help ensure that students are "set up for success" if they choose to pursue higher education after graduation, he said.
Grosz said that as the next school year approaches, the district will begin providing parents of sixth-graders with specific information about how report cards will change.