Urban ends first year of new grading policy

Ella McLeod, Staff Writer

For some students it’s still a controversy, while for others it’s a non-event: Friday, June 8 will mark the end of Urban’s first year of a more transparent approach to classroom grading.

Last year, our unique hippie school — just one block north of the intersection of Haight and Ashbury streets — joined nearly every other school in America by showing students their grades immediately after the end of a course. Previously, students received course reports that included a rubric, but not their actual letter grades, which they didn’t see those until junior or senior year, though juniors learned their GPAs after each term.

Interviews with Urban students revealed mixed opinions about the grading policy change.

“I’m really happy they got rid of secret grades, but ideally we’d be ungraded,” said Max Goldberg (’13).

“I don’t like (the grading policy), because I feel that it’s contradictory that they give us grades at the end of the term but not during interims,” said Jill Bransford (’14), referring to six-week reports that come at the middle of the trimester.  “I wish they would give us grades all the way or just give us rubrics like they did originally.”

Rubrics are one point of contention. Prior to the policy change, teachers assessed students using rubrics at the midway point and the end of each term, including the student’s performance in different aspects of the class. The rubric was accompanied by a narrative comment from the teacher describing the student’s progress and areas of improvement.

Today, the rubric is still there, but the sections of assessment have changed from “area of concern, appropriately developed, highly developed” to “not acceptable, below standard, at standard, above standard and excellent.” As they did before, students still receive narrative comments and have a conference with their advisers at the end of each trimester to discuss their course reports, and they receive a GPA at the end of the year.

Though much about Urban’s grading process remains the same, many students have expressed concern that the new grading policy has altered Urban’s academic focus.

“It’s making me think much more about the grade than I usually would,” said Hannah Cook (’14). “Last year I was more concerned about my personal achievements. This year I feel like I have to produce a good grade at the end in order to prove that I did well.”

Urban encourages its students to strive to learn and think critically, but some think that the focus on grades gets in the way.

“I’m quicker to judge myself by the grade than by what I learned,” said Mabel Taylor (’14).

Nonetheless, Urban teachers do not share the sentiment about the grading policy, or have yet to speak out against it.

“I think there’s a concern about if it’s going to have an impact on Urban’s culture, as we move forward, to have grades,” said math department head Laura Veuve. “But I haven’t noticed a big change in how kids talk about grades during the term.” Even so, students say that there has been an increase in the amount of discussion about grades, giving rise to a sense of competition that many Urban students try to avoid.

“I came back halfway through the school year and everyone was talking about grades, and I don’t remember that happening before,” said Canada Choate (’13), who spent the first half of the school year at The Oxbow School, a private arts school located in Napa, Calif.

Above all, students have expressed that the grading change has changed them on a personal level.

“I don’t like it,” said Taylor. “It’s making people too competitive; it’s making me too competitive.”

Some students don’t like the new system because of how it has changed expectations at home. 

“I don’t like it because it’s all my parents look at,” said Octave Lepinard (’15).

But other students endorse the new grading policy, with some saying that knowing where they stand gradewise is a relief.

“I like it,” said Amanda Jacoby (’13). “If I didn’t have grades junior year, I would be freaking out.”

In a Legend survey taken by 44 freshmen, 58 percent responded that they “like” the current grading policy, 21 percent are “ambivalent” about it, and 21 percent “don’t like it.” Out of all the classes, the freshmen gave the new system the biggest thumbs up.  This may be due to the fact that 84.6 percent of them came from a middle school that had grades, so they are used to more explicit grading.

The sophomores, juniors, and seniors who experienced the old grading policy are not quite as happy with the new one.  Of the 28 sophomores that responded to the survey, 21.4 percent “like it,” 35.7 percent “don’t like it,” and 32 percent are “ambivalent” about the new policy. Of the 22 juniors that responded to the survey, 25 percent “like it,” 35 percent “don’t like it,” and 40 percent are “ambivalent” about it. Of the 19 seniors that responded to the survey, 18.8 percent “like it,” 43.8 percent “don’t like it,” and 43.8 percent are “ambivalent” (see chart at right).

Nonetheless, Urban teachers emphasize that students should focus on the rubric over the grade.

“The rubric is more genuinely feedback, rather than a coded message to let you know how you’re doing,” said Veuve.

Math teacher Riley Maddox added that the new grading policy was helpful because “now when we write our narratives, we don’t have to be concerned with communicating the grade though the narrative.”

Some students do not find the system as straightforward as it may sound.

“I would get one grade from one teacher and have completely different marks and the same grade from another teacher,” said Choate.  “If it’s standard, it should be three points, if it’s above standard it should be four points, and if it’s below standard it should be two points.”

Teachers and administrators are currently working to improve the so-called “lack of connection” between the rubric and the grade. 

“We’ve been working really hard this year to be really clear with students about what the most important criteria for the grade is,” said Suzanne Forrest, assistant head of academics. Nonetheless, she has a long-term outlook for the future of the new system: “I think it’ll take us three years to totally adapt to this new way of working.”