Urban faculty reflects on reformed grading system

With Urban’s shift to virtual school, significant changes have been necessary to alleviate students’ and teachers’ stress. As such, Geoff Ruth, Academic Dean, announced on April 16 that Urban’s grading system had been overhauled for the spring term.
In his email, Ruth described the new grading system as “purposefully ‘softer’” than Urban’s usual one, designed to “support and benefit” the student body. However, the reasons for altering Urban’s grading system extend far beyond the need to ease the difficulty of student assessments during an emotionally challenging time. Among several major factors, Ruth and others were tasked with creating an evaluation system that addresses equity.
“There are huge equity issues associated with having school from people’s homes, and so many folks thought that it wasn’t reasonable to use our usual grading scale with that in play,” Ruth said. “Trying to figure out a new assessment system is super challenging because people’s needs are all over the place.”
These efforts were “pretty clearly designed to primarily benefit students,” Ruth said. He and his team worked to create “a grading scale that, in some ways, evens the playing field and addresses equity by narrowing the number of possible grades so that those lower grades are funneled up into a common higher grade.”
According to Ruth, Urban’s trimester system complicated the process of altering grading, as the solutions for semester-based schools did not apply. “What most other schools, both nationally and locally, have done is honestly not relevant for us,” he said. “So trying to figure this out was particularly a challenge because we were in a unique situation.”
Matthew Casey, Science Department Chair, worked closely with Ruth to create the new grading system. “From the science department’s perspective, we’re really looking for three things,” Casey said. “We’re looking for how well kids attend class and be present…, the work completion… and understanding.”
The assessment criteria brought about within the science department inspired the rest of the departments to follow suit. “[Engagement, completion, and understanding] are our three main areas for assessment and I think that sort of resonated with Geoff and the other department chairs,” Casey said. “So we came up with essentially those three categories across all classes at Urban.”
In reference to the school’s decision to only include the letter grades A, A-, B, and F, Casey said, “We want to acknowledge that this is a really tough time for students, so we don’t think it’s fair to be giving B-‘s and C’s. A lot of students are really struggling, and so if you can just do the bare minimum, that’s considered ‘at standard’ during this time.”
Though this solution is not as comprehensive as Urban’s previous grading system, Casey has confidence in its fairness. “I don’t have as much data as I’m used to having on students,” he said, “so this allows me to still give a fair grade based on fewer data points because I only have to fill out three rubric rows instead of seven or eight.”
The grading change “also lowers the workload, substantially, for teachers,” Casey said. “We don’t have to write as much on interim reports or grade reports; we don’t have to fill out as many rubrics.”
Casey views Urban’s grading change as beneficial to the community as a whole. It showcases the school’s desire to support each of its community members during this difficult time.
“We don’t want to penalize students for this crisis, which is completely out of their control, which makes learning harder,” Casey said. “This lightens the workload for teachers as well, but also gives us a system where we still feel like we’re able to fairly evaluate students and acknowledge the work that they’re putting into it.”