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Rocklin Academy says goodbye to letter grades

Teachers, board support change; some parents say not enough notice given
By: Krissi Khokhobashvili, Placer Herald and Press Tribune editor
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Rocklin Academy has eliminated letter grades for its fourth- through sixth-grade students, and some parents are concerned they weren’t given adequate notice or input about the change.

At the Oct. 22 Rocklin Academy school board meeting, trustees voted, with one abstention and one member absent, to do away with letter grades, reminding parents that this isn’t a change, but rather the next step in refining the grading system for students.

Superintendent Phil Spears said he sent a notice to parents the first week of school letting them know that he was “recommending that we implement the next refinement of our student reporting system for the elementary school, which was the elimination of letter grades on the standards-based report cards.”

The school had been issuing report cards with both the traditional A, B, C system and the standards-based system, which assigns a number, 1-4, based on students’ mastery of the subject, the number indicating a student’s proficiency in the each standard of the subject. For example, Spears said, if a young student is expected to learn and then recite the alphabet and could do so, that student would be assigned a 3, showing mastery of that standard. A 4, he said, shows that a student has knowledge and skills beyond the grade level he or she is at, even if they have not yet been taught that information at Rocklin Academy.

Earlier in October, Spears informed parents via the “Wednesday Weekly” email that the letters would be removed. In a follow-up message, he clarified how the new system will work.

A standards-based report card, he wrote, ensures there is consistency of expectations from teacher to teacher and helps teachers and students focus on the standards from the beginning of the year, giving students a chance to receive help sooner if they are not making adequate progress.

The change is in keeping with Rocklin Academy’s “Core Value One,” which states the expectation that all students can learn at high levels and the educational program should support that, Spears wrote.

“If a student does not pass an assessment on the first attempt, then, consistent with our core values, he or she is provided with additional support and the time to take the assessments again, and if needed, again, perhaps in a different way. We never give up on working with our students until they succeed in meeting their goals. In alignment with our core values, assigning a letter grade does not communicate a student’s progress toward mastery of a specific standard.”

Kristel Kamrar, a sixth-grade teacher at Rocklin Academy Meyers, told the board that she had a discussion with her students about the new system. An “A” student correctly answers at least 90 percent of the questions on a test, she was told. But, she asked the class, if a student only misses one question on a test, “What if that one question you couldn’t answer was, ‘What is at the center of our solar system?’”

Rocklin resident and former Rocklin Unified School District trustee Mark Klang, whose daughter is a sixth-grader at Rocklin Academy, took exception to how the change was handled and the way Spears informed parents.

“A charter school is supposed to be the parent-school relationship,” he said. “He’s just running his own thing without any input from the parents.”

Klang could not attend the board meeting, but made his point known via multiple emails to parents, teachers and administrators. His concerns about eliminating letter grades include how a student’s aptitude would be determined, and where he or she would be placed, upon moving to a school with a traditional letter-grade system, and how such motivators as making the Honor Roll would be handled.

“It’s just a fact: You have to have grades,” Klang said. “I spent time in the military. I went to flight training. Everybody gets graded on everything. Welcome to the real world."

Spears told the board that Rocklin Unified School District middle schools place students based not upon letter grades, but on objective assessments given at the middle schools. As for incentives for getting good grades, such as making the Honor Roll, he said there are ways, with board and parent input, that positive motivators can be sorted out. He pointed out, in his follow-up email, that many school districts do not have letter grades for elementary students, including Natomas Unified, San Juan Unified and Sacramento City Unified.

Klang said that instead of just sending the notice out in an email, there should have been a committee formed or a parent survey conducted to gather input.

Board Chair Doug Johnson emphasized that this is not a reversal of the grading system, but rather the culmination of a system put into place several years ago. Kindergarten through third grades, he said, use only standards-based grading.

He also took responsibility for advising Spears that he did not think this was a new item that required going through a committee or gathering a lot of parent input. He said he welcomes any questions or concerns from parents regarding standards-based grading.

“I may have misstepped in terms of that parent partnership,” he said, “but I want to underscore that we have always maintained input from parents on these kinds of issues.”

Board member Melissa Garrido said she trusts the administration, but saw a gap in parent education in this situation.

“We need to do a better job of communicating all of the important items to our parents and board members,” said Garrido, who abstained from voting. Board member Rick Miller was absent.

Board member Margaret Broussard agreed that stakeholder input is necessary, but said input could be gathered even after the change was made.

After more than an hour of discussion, the board voted to affirm full implementation of standards-based grading, including removal of letter grades, in partnership with students, staff and parents to address concerns about student motivation, recognition and other issues that arise. Johnson said an update will be provided at the November board meeting.

Miken Dayton, fine and performing arts teacher at Western Sierra Collegiate Academy and teacher adviser to the Rocklin Academy board, said she supports standards-based grading and its role in making sure every student learns everything that is taught.

“I finally feel like I’m honoring my profession when I hold my students accountable to the knowledge, to the learning.”