Breaking down grading at The Urban School

Vivien Manning

Walking through Urban at 5pm on Friday the day grades are released, the anxiety is palpable. Grades, especially the only letter grade we’ve seen all term, can feel so momentous.

As a senior, I’ve certainly engaged in the culture of stress around grades. I never really made a distinction between my performance as a student and my worth as a person (you know, the distinction everyone tells you to make for your own sanity and self esteem…). I’ve certainly had –and vented– my complaints about Urban’s grading system: namely, my frustrations with the seeming lack of transparency around grades and how hard it can feel to get an A. Grading is a difficult process for both students and teachers, especially at a high-pressure school like Urban, even one that works to be countercultural in its focus on the learning and not the letter grade. It’s important to note that obsession and competition around grades doesn’t affect everyone — I have a friend who doesn’t even check her grades until much later after they’re released. But we do put a lot of weight on these grades, and it can feel overwhelming.

Courtney Rein, English Department Chair, explained, “the rubric helps students not see themselves as some limiting, reduced grade. It ends up allowing students to focus on growth, as opposed to their limitations. It also encourages more conversation and more attention to feedback.” This idea was echoed by the other department heads I spoke to.

Rein explained that in the final grading process she mainly looks at a student’s level of writing. She added, “If there’s a cusp situation, if the writing is in muddy terrain, that’s where effort [and] commitment to the writing process tips a student into the higher or lower range.” When it comes to class participation, she said, “I think there’s a myth that in English the more you talk in class, the better you do. It’s much more about the quality of your contributions.”

Rebecca Shapiro, the History Department Chair said class participation “entails more than talking. Listening [and engagement] go into this notion of participation.”

In math classes, class participation is not necessarily an essential part of the class. Laura Hawkins, Math Department Chair, explained, “We want to grade on what you can do mathematically, and if you can get there without participating very much in class, then you’ve gotten where you need to get.”

The Science Department, as with the Math Department, takes a very data-centered approach to grading. Matthew Casey, Science Department Chair, explained there is an electronic gradebook where every homework assignment, lab, quiz, test and even classroom participation is assigned a numerical score and entered into this gradebook.

The Science Department, however, does continue to use rubrics for lab reports and projects. Their use of rubrics allows for a way to break down the lab reports and assess each section in a way that is designed to foster conversation between students and teachers.

Casey explained that effort is factored in the grading process in the habits section of the final rubric. However, that category counts significantly more in underclassmen years and diminishes in the upperclassmen years, because “you’re expected to have the habits down so it counts less.” He explained that learning the material is ‘At Standard’, but applying that material to new situations is ‘Above Standard’ in Science.

Through various measures, teachers try to incorporate students’ efforts into their grades. In English and History, teachers look at the entire process of quote tables, outlines, and rough drafts. As Shapiro said, “It’s not true [that] the essay alone matters.”

The Math Department especially tries to incorporate opportunities to improve with recycles, an opportunity to redo missed problems and receive up to half credit back. Hawkins said, “We have this goal of constant learning and constant revision.”

Student Perspective:

-On rubrics:

I spoke to some seniors who have been through and learned from the Urban grading process. Speaking to the advantages of Urban’s grading policy, Olive Rynberg-Going (‘18) said, “I think rubrics are important because they show me in what ways I can improve. I took BlendEd [an online course that combines students from multiple Bay Area schools] this past semester, and when I got my final grade and there was no rubric, I felt a little cheated. I want to hear about me, what I did well, how I can improve.” Skylar Baker (‘18) said he didn’t think the rubrics throughout the term felt sufficient for him to know how he’s doing in a class, and he’s left confused about his performance in classes. He said, “If it’s not clear to me how I’m doing in a class, I don’t know how to manage my effort. Especially as an underclassmen, it can be confusing when you don’t have instincts of how to succeed in an Urban class, it can really feel like it’s based on chance.”


The A and stigma about every other grade:

Rynberg-Going notes there is often an awkward pause if she reveals she got a B plus or a B. She said, “I’ve never heard anyone openly say they’ve gotten a C.” She added, “In some ways, Urban has failed to make the letter grade [matter] less to students. By not giving us grades throughout the term, the final grade feels so much more important.” Baker added that he believed the grading process “transforms stress. Instead of a constant desire to check your grade, it’s turned into a constant fear of what your grade is. The school is incredibly competitive masked in Urban’s mission to create a noncompetitive culture.”

Rein explained her perspective: “Part of the problem is that the grade bandwidth at Urban is so high. Most people get between a B and an A, so moving from B to B plus is moving up 25 percent. If you’re using grades as a benchmark, it’s a pretty limited benchmark. If we actually gave a lot of Fs and Cs, you would have in some ways more room for growth.” She added that students should find an intrinsic motivation for school that is not the A. She said, “The more attached you get to the A, the harder it’s going to be to generate some sort of intrinsic motivation. Part of the struggle here is to let go to that A and find something that’s meaningful to you in another form, whether it’s improvement or saying what you want to say, or getting connected to a piece of literature, that’s what’s ultimately going to create meaning for you later. It’s tedious and it takes a lot of letting go, and it’s painful, but we’re trying to get rid of the dependency of the A.”

Students often complain about how difficult it is to get an A at Urban. When asked about this, Shapiro said, “I understand it, I don’t disagree with it. I sometimes wonder how well I would do at Urban, given the type of high school student I was, and the answer is some kind of B. [Getting an A] is by no means impossible. It’s different for every student; we have students who have been trained in expectations since kindergarten. For other students coming from other backgrounds, this is much more of a shock for them. It has to do with being really deliberate and clear on what our expectations are and doing a good job on teaching students what those expectations are… Urban has tried to to argue against the tide of grades are everything. At the same time, we’re a college prep school and there’s an inherent contradiction there, but it’s better to have that contradiction than to bow to the tide.” After speaking to Urban teachers and students, I have at least a better understanding of and appreciation for Urban’s grading process, while still recognizing the flaws, which are of course inevitable.