Milwaukee Public Schools to Drop A-F Grades for K-8

Milwaukee Public Schools is joining a number of other districts around the country by abandoning the A-F grading scale for students in kindergarten through 8th grade. Instead, MPS will be shifting to a new scoring system that will assess students’ academic progress separately from their social skills.

Specifically, students will no longer lose points for things like late homework, and will be allowed to submit their assignments a number of times until they get it right. The goal, according to administrators, is to allow grades to serve as a marker for student academic skills rather than their ability to finish work on time or pay attention in class.

The change is taking both teachers and parents by surprise, and no one is quite sure if the surprise is a welcome one.

Administrators say the changes capture a more nuanced picture of a student’s academic progress. They also align with the push schools are making to implement the Common Core, a set of nationwide academic standards voluntarily adopted by most states that raise the bar on what students should know and be able to do in core academic subjects.

According to MPS, the updated report card identifies the skills students need to master in each grade level, and replaces overall letter grades with an AD for advanced, PR for proficient, BA for basic and MI for minimal. Proficient is the level expected for a student’s grade level.

The report card offers separate feedback about a student’s work habits, behavior and effort — such as following rules or arriving to class prepared — on a scale of 1 to 4.

According to Coral Garnick and Erin Richards of the Journal Sentinel, the approach is known as “standards-based” grading, and is gaining popularity in other districts in Wisconsin, including Oak Creek, Grafton and Kettle Moraine. Unlike the new MPS system, these districts retain the familiar letter grades, but those grades will be based almost exclusively on academics.

In some ways, the change seems obvious. As Dave Dentinger, who supervises secondary education at another district that recently made the switch – Wauwatosa – said that people want to know that a child who earned an A because he or she has absorbed the material being taught. Good academic practices are a stepping stone to educational success, but they shouldn’t serve as a proxy for it, he believes.

Oak Creek High School teacher Chris Kurth remembers that last year, when the district encouraged teachers to grade solely on academic performance and not behavior, a lot of questions came from high-performing students. They were sensitive to how the changes could affect their grade-point averages.

Some parents — and students — appreciate the rewards that grades have long offered to students who continually turn in complete assignments on time, and who speak up in class, as those behaviors are also likely to propel them in high school and, eventually, college or beyond.