Changes in Urban School “no grade” policy sparks school-wide debate


Video reporting by Annakai Geshlider.

Sabrina Werby, Staff writer

Urban’s often-dormant “Speak Up” forum, a private online space for Urban community discussion, erupted with red flags when Head of School Mark Salkind announced the long anticipated grading policy changes on Jan. 7.

Both students and faculty sent a total of 137 messages to the forum expressing a wide variety of opinions between Jan. 10 and Jan. 12, compared with 103 emails sent over the entirety of the 2009-2010 school year.

Beginning next fall, students will see their grades for each class at the end of each trimester. This is the most significant and controversial of several recent changes to the grading policy.

According to the “Urban School Grading and Evaluation Policy Changes” page of the school’s website, other changes, also beginning next fall, will be: “a common set of performance indicators” on interim and course reports; more detailed indicators of “overall achievement on interim rubrics;” and an enlarged “use of rubrics to assess major papers, reports, projects, labs and problem sets.” Students receive interim reports at the six-week mark of each trimester.

The decision to show grades came after two years of research including surveys and conversations with students, teachers, and parents. “There are a significant number of students who are confused about their overall achievements,” said Suzanne Forrest, academic dean and an integral participant in the grading policy reevaluation process. “We want students to have access to information and families to be well-informed.”

The Urban School has traditionally not shown students their grades. According to the evaluation policy shown on the school’s website, “since its founding (in) 1966, Urban has relied on an evaluation system in which students receive detailed written feedback on assignments, essays, and projects, and in place of report cards with grades.”

Even though Urban’s grading policy will now be more transparent, many argue that the system is essentially unchanged. “I have a lot of conviction that (the grading policy) is very much the same,” said Salkind. “We still do not believe that grades alone are a good, accurate measurement of student achievement.”

Greg Monfils, freshman/sophomore dean and English teacher, said, “when I had to justify (the old grading system), I never felt good in my gut. It almost felt condescending.”

For some students getting grades may be an unwelcome reality check. Salkind revealed that “the most common grade given at Urban is a B.”

“Hard work alone will not get you an A,” said Monfils, but even at an Urban with grades, “we have to give kids credit for their hard work and achievement.”

Though the Urban community had been expecting a change in the grading policy for more than a year, the changes still sparked a strong reaction from students.

In a message to the ‘Speak Up Forum,’ Simone Hudson (’12) wrote, “I believe we all need to consider what we must do, perpetuate, and resist to ensure that we continue to ‘learn for the sake of learning’ and not for that A.”

“My initial reaction was being upset because I am bound to (the no-grade) system and it has worked well for me,” said Natasha Weiss (’11), head of student government. “Then after I gained more perspective I came to see the changes themselves are very insignificant.”

Ironically, the threat of change has helped some students refocus on what learning and living at Urban really means.

“If one letter is going to change your experience at Urban, then you are relying too heavily on the grading policy,” said Cole Larsen (’12).

“Regardless of how I feel about the grading policy change itself, it makes me happy to see people arguing in a positive way and getting riled up,” said Weiss. “I feel like a certain momentum built up after the grading changes reaction on the ‘speak up’ forum,” she continued, referencing more recent discussions about Damali Ayo, diversity, and the parent collaborative agreement for safe teen socializing contract.

“The reaction on the ‘Speak-Up forum’ was really encouraging,” said Hudson (’12) in an email, “I hope the zeal and enthusiasm that people so readily displayed on the ‘Speak-Up’ forum can be directed toward a ‘maintenance’ or perpetuation of Urban’s identity.  What a time to be at the Urban School!  While I am upset about the change in the grading policy (and similarly, the parent agreement), I feel there must be some good that will come of this.”

Finally, Monfils stressed his belief that grading is only one piece of the school. “We are not just the school that does not have grades,” he said, “There is so much more to Urban than the no-grades thing.”