Editorial: Mastery over memory worth trying to help tackle APS achievement gap - Albuquerque Journal

Editorial: Mastery over memory worth trying to help tackle APS achievement gap

The initial reaction by many Journal readers to exploring equitable grading at Albuquerque Public Schools has been somewhat skeptical — to put it mildly.

Letter writer Bob Christensen of Belen says the $687,500 pilot program recently approved by the school board by a 6-1 vote sends a message to some students that they “will never be able to succeed on their own.”

“Are life skills like behavior and discipline really not worth teaching?” asked Paul Malin of Albuquerque.

Dan Bright of Albuquerque asks why not simply give every student an A “and make it truly ‘equitable.'”

“Can we go any lower than 51st in the nation?” asked a SpeakUp! writer.

APS board member Peggy Muller Aragón, the lone board member to vote against the pilot program, argued the premise behind equitable grading is offensive because it assumes students of color or those who have fewer opportunities aren’t as capable as their peers.

“I take offense to that as a person of color,” Muller Aragón said.

While those concerns are legitimate, the goal of school is to educate students to face life’s challenges and become productive members of society, not to gauge how well they perform on standardized tests or how punctual a third-grader is in turning in homework.

Many APS schools now use a grading system in which a grade of 59% or less is considered failing. So a student could theoretically master nearly three-fifths of the subject material and still fail the course.

According to APS Chief of Schools Channell Segura, the pilot program will work this way: Rather than a 0 to 100 grading system, participating teachers will use a new grading scale. A “zero” would mean a student hasn’t submitted any evidence of mastering a subject. A “one” would demonstrate limited understanding. A “two” — the threshold for a grade that would be counted for credit — would indicate a student was partially proficient. A “three” means proficiency. A “four” means highly proficient.

Equitable grading also means shifting away from averaged final grades and focusing more on tests students can retake, an approach that more accurately shows a student’s actual proficiency.

“(I)t works to get away from averaging students’ grades over time and instead (looks) at that end result to see how much the student has grown in that specific skill or standard,” Segura told the school board. “Grading … it’s been very subjective over time on the 100-point scale. It’s not focused on student learning, and so it’s more compliance-based.”

Teachers also will move away from rejecting late assignments. The rationale is that meeting a deadline is not an actual measure of what a student has learned. Meeting deadlines is still an important skill, but it doesn’t measure a student’s mastery of a subject.

Joyce Gormley, executive director of Curriculum and Instruction at APS, contends equitable grading is still rigorous, and actually does a better job of providing grade-level content to students.

Segura told school board members she would have preferred to label the practices “standards-based or mastery-based” instead of “equitable.” Based on Segura’s description, either the mastery- or standards-based label seems a more apt description of this program.

The two-year pilot will provide training for up to 300 APS teachers and 40 administrators beginning in the fall, for teachers “who are excited about it.”

Speaking of teachers, one concern we did not see mentioned is the program’s impact on teachers. First, there is the additional work of regrading multiple tests because students choose to retake them. Second, how are teachers supposed to cope with receiving a semester’s worth of assignments in the final two weeks — a scenario that will surely happen without assignment deadlines?

The program needs to be designed to prevent these train wrecks.

Despite those concerns, it’s an idea worth exploring, particularly considering the landmark Yazzie-Martinez consolidated lawsuit of 2018 that found the state was not providing certain students — especially low-income, Native American, English language learner and students with disabilities — with the programs and services necessary for them to learn and thrive.

We’ve got to try something new. The aim of equitable grading is to counteract institutional biases by cutting out traditional methods of grading.

It’s crucial the pilot program — funded by federal pandemic relief funds — builds data about its effectiveness, which should then determine whether it is worth expanding.

That data should be transparent, honestly evaluated and rigorously studied. If concerns about lowered expectations for students prove true, the program should be scuttled.

“We’re going to see how effective this is before we make any sweeping policy decisions,” Segura says. Good. Dipping your toe in a cold lake is one thing, jumping in is another.

More mastery-based education and less emphasis on grading are trending. The panel of the American Bar Association that accredits U.S. law schools recently voted to eliminate the longstanding requirement that schools use the Law School Admission Test or other standardized test when admitting students. Some say the LSAT is a roadblock to building a diverse legal profession and law schools should have more flexibility in admissions.

Local school districts need flexibility, too.

A program at APS focusing more on student achievement than report cards could help eliminate institutional biases while also reducing the achievement gap.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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