District 834 takes new approach to learning and grading

A new approach to teaching, testing and grading has entered the halls of Stillwater Area Schools with a goal to make students lifelong learners.

The learning initiative, which was three years in the making, was piloted at Oak-Land Junior High last year and has spread into classrooms at both Stillwater Junior High and Stillwater Area High School. Some of the same practices are also being found in elementary school classrooms.

The initiative shares many components of “standards-based grading practices,” which are becoming more common nationwide. The system defines specific “learning targets” (what students should know), and it changes the grading processes in an attempt to more accurately measure what students know based on a specific standard. The idea is to make grades more meaningful and to help students learn from their mistakes.

“The process for this started about three years ago,” Executive Director of Curriculum and Secondary Education Ryan Laager said. “We were looking at and researching best practices making sure we were staying current with our educational tools and making sure to emphasize the learning component for our students.”

“In the course of our professional development we found that this initiative was a way to give feedback to students and a way to demonstrate what students know and don’t know so we can explain those things specifically to students so that they understand things fully by the end of semester,” said Oak-Land Junior High School Principal Andy Fields.

The new grading processes encourage kids to continue to learn and engage with the learning process after they take “formative” tests or do assignments that help them learn the material. Once students have had the chance to learn the material well, they take a “summative” final test or project to demonstrate what they have learned.

Laager gave an example to illustrate how this works: The teacher gives students a writing assignment. The teacher would go through the assignment, see what learning targets and concepts students understand and then highlight concepts for improvement. The teacher would see grammatical errors, for example, put a mark by them and give the assignment back to the student. After explaining the errors, the teacher would have the student improve the assignment and turn it in again. By going through this process, students should have a more complete understanding of the content. If students still are struggling with concepts, that’s when learning supports can be applied.

“We’re really encouraging kids to know something fully,” Laager said. “If you turn in something or take a test, you look at the work, say it’s 100 points, and teachers say, ‘Okay, you know 50 percent of this.’ They review the topics with the students and then give students 48 hours to learn the other half to get 100 percent.”

“What it does is it shows kids how to continue to learn,” Stillwater Junior High School Principal Chuck Ochocki said. “In the past we’ve always looked at the test and just moved on, but what about the kids who need to be more engaged in the assessment? They’ve gotten something wrong and they want to learn why.”

Laager and Fields said that data collection on the initiative has shown that it’s been a positive change so far, despite some initial push back. He added that they had several teams of teachers come to them initially to say that they knew intuitively that the change would be good but needed some support in the transition.

“Any initiative will have some push back initially,” Fields said. “But as we listen to feedback and make changes as needed, we’re going to expand and change and do what we need to move forward and help our students learn and grow.”

“It’s definitely a mindset shift from what we’ve done in the past,” Laager added. “But as a (former high school) principal, I’ve been dealing with staff as they’ve gone along with it, and when they really followed it authentically, it’s grown on them and allows them to give more feedback to students and build that teacher/student relationship.”

Another component of the new initiative is implementing learning targets, a focused goal of what teachers want their students to learn in class that day.

“Kids do have six classes, and parents and the wider community seem to forget that sometimes,” Superintendent Corey Lunn said. “Having learning targets really lets kids focus and comprehend fully what they’re learning in class that day.”

“To have targets to accomplish in class as a kid are very helpful,” Ochocki said. “I hate it when my kids, who are in a different district, come home, and when you ask, ‘What did you learn today?’ they say, ‘Nothing.’ Now parents can say ‘I know you had a learning target in class, tell me more about that.’ And this creates a very powerful conversation to reinforce learning.”

With a year of data in place, principals are now working to evaluate the effectiveness of the program and collect feedback from staff. Information gathered will help leaders plan for year two of the Bridge to Excellence plan, which calls for the incorporation of learning targets at all grade levels and for more formal grading policies to be adopted. A presentation will be made at the Feb. 27 school board meeting.

Contact Avery Cropp at [email protected]