New grading scale sweeps across Park City schools

Students at Ecker Hill Middle School recently said goodbye to letter grades and hello to a new grading scale.

Standards-based learning, a method that aims to provide more accurate and academic-specific feedback, was adopted by the entire middle school this year and is in place in the majority of the classrooms at Treasure Mountain Junior High. Teachers at Park City High School are beginning to adopt the method and elementary school instructors are exploring its use, prompting the Park City School District to evaluate ways to effectively organize the shift from traditional grading.

Standards-based learning uses a scale from one to four to measure a student’s profiency in a given standard. Students who receive a three, for example, have mastered the skill while a four means they have gone above and beyond what is required of them. It is a new method to evaluate a students’ understanding of a concept. The scale is translated into letter grades at Treasure Mountain and the high school, so grade point averages will not be affected. At Ecker Hill, the numbered scale replaced traditional letter grades.

Emily Sutherland, principal of Treasure Mountain Junior High, said teachers started looking into standards-based learning several years ago, but it took a while for someone to take a risk and try it out. It was in place in isolated classrooms for the last few years, but it has gained popularity in the last year.

“It’s a pretty radical shift for teachers philosophically,” she said. “It takes momentum and really strong belief to be able to implement it, so it took a while for anyone to be brave enough to give it a shot and see how it goes.”

Elizabeth Thompson, an English and language arts at Ecker Hill, was one of the teachers willing to try standards-based learning. She first learned about it during a conference she attended about six years ago.

She was attracted to standards-based learning because of its focus on the students’ understanding of core principles. Students are evaluated on their understanding of a skill rather than by their ability to turn in an assignment on time or follow directions, Sutherland said.

Thompson started using the methodology in her classroom about five years ago, and she said she quickly started seeing its positive effects.

For students who were getting “A”s but not really mastering subjects, she could pinpoint where they were struggling and help them improve. When students performed poorly on one assignment or had behavioral problems, she said they weren’t immediately written off as a failing student.

“I would see kids who maybe did poorly on one item and they would be in this hole and could never get out,” she said. “With standards-based, I could narrow down exactly what skill it was that they were struggling on. There was a light at the end of the tunnel.”

She said it was a bit of a “messy process” to adopt standards-based learning because it was so different from traditional grading. But, she is glad she went through it. She feels like a more effective teacher because she is able to clearly explain to her students where they need improvement.

“It has revolutionized the way I score kids, the way I do interventions,” Thompson said. “With standards-based learning, I feel like I can meet every kid wherever they are and help them succeed.”

In traditional grading styles, grades are impacted by attendance, participation and behavior in class. Sutherland said it was “not a true reflection of knowledge.” Standards-based learning takes things like behavior and attendance into account, but they are separate from a student’s ability to master the content.

At Ecker Hill Middle School, the student’s behavior is reported as a different grade. At Treasure Mountain and the high school, attendance and behavior will be reflected in the letter grade, but the factors will have less of an impact on the grade, said Traci Evans, the district’s interim associate superintendent of teaching and learning.

In recent years, several teachers have adopted standards-based learning in their classrooms, so much so that the district decided to provide more structure and planning this year. Superintendent Jill Gildea said during the last Park City Board of Education meeting that she hopes to create a district task force to define consistent reporting across schools and to provide resources and action plans for the schools.

Consistency is one of the core criteria for standards-based learning, which is why teachers in the same department work together in their professional learning communities. Teachers collaborate about what work should be deemed proficient for a student’s understanding of a subject and what is not up to standards, Evans said.

“What this does is make sure that every student has a high level of rigor, no matter who their teacher is,” she said.


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