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Kansas High Schools Reluctant To Lose A's And F's In Favor Of Standards-Based Grading

When a student comes home with a C on their report card, it often isn't clear what that means.

Are they average in geometry? Or did their math proficiency get dragged down by poor class attendance?

Wichita Public Schools is hoping to clarify those grades by isolating academics from everything else that happens in the classroom.

"We really want to focus on what it is that students know and what can they do," said Christy O’Toole, the executive director of Curriculum and Instruction for Wichita Public Schools.

For years, elementary schools in Kansas have graded academic performance separately from other skills. Whether a student forgets a pencil or hands in their work late doesn't affect their final score — often reflected as a number between zero and four.

But Kansas middle and high schools have been slow to adopt the same practices. They've found it difficult to lose the A's and F's in high school when GPAs are obsessed over by students and their parents.

Standards-based — or standards-referenced — is a method of grading where the teachers emphasize a student's mastery of one of the state standards. Wichita Public Schools is narrowing its focus on what it sees as critical content.

"If we did ( all the state standards) in the course of a child's life, K-12, we'd need 15,000 hours, but we only have 9,000 hours with a child," said Andi Giesen, assistant superintendent at Wichita Public Schools. "So we're narrowing the focus to the critical content."

Wichita will start implementing standard-referenced grading in its elementary schools next school year. Other elementary schools in the state have used standard-based grading for years.

Augusta public schools began the practice about seven years ago. Report cards still report nonacademic performance — students receive grades in areas like group work and responsibility.

"When we were kids and parents went to parent-teacher conference, they said, 'Johnny got an A in math and a B in science' but they really don't know what their child knows and what they don't know," said Holly Francis, assistant superintendent at Augusta Public Schools.

The practice stops after Augusta students move past fifth grade. While standard-based grading is common in Kansas elementary schools, it's rare at the middle and high school levels.

"Everyone understands that zero to 100 scale," said Ryan Arnold, administrative intern with Highland Park High School in Topeka. "That equates to a certain scores for the GPA. And the colleges recognize that as well.

"In my opinion that's been the kind of sticking point for high schools."

Wichita Public Schools will implement its new learning standards in its middle schools in 2020 and high schools in 2021. Parents won't notice much of a difference on the final report card, however, with the grades converted to traditional A's and B's.

Yet Wichita high schools will be the exception, with few schools willing to change how grading is done past eighth grade when college applications depend on them.

Advocates point to Iowa for its above-average adoption of standard-based grading. Yet less than 20 high schools in Iowa have made the conversion, according to Matt Townsley, assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Northern Iowa.

Townsley said for students at schools that haven't switched, their performance remains foggy.

"It's possible for a kid to get B's on all their tests in a high school course and then they complete a bunch of extra credit crossword puzzles, bring some Kleenex boxes to school and get a bunch of homework right and that pads their grade and brings it up to an A," Townsley said. "It's really just not an accurate communication of what a student has actually learned."

Stephan Bisaha reports on education and young adult life for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service, a collaboration of KMUW, Kansas Public Radio, KCUR and High Plains Public Radio covering health, education and politics. Follow him on @SteveBisaha.

 Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished at no cost with proper attribution and a link to

Copyright 2020 KMUW | NPR for Wichita. To see more, visit .

Stephan Bisaha is a former NPR Kroc Fellow. Along with producing Weekend Edition, Stephan has reported on national stories for Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as other NPR programs. He provided data analysis for an investigation into the Department of Veteran Affairs and reported on topics ranging from Emojis to mattresses.
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