As the Kerrytown clocktower bells rang, Joslyn Hunscher-Young, a Spanish and History teacher at Community High School (CHS), began her class bright and early on Monday morning. She is one of many teachers to implement an alternative standard-based grading model in her classroom, a system she discovered while teaching at her previous high school: Washtenaw International High School.
While at WIHI, Hunscher-Young was not looking to change her traditional grading system but made the adjustment to a “Skillset Mastery” paradigm after a co-worker recommended the approach to the school’s administrators.
In the new system, students scored zero to eight in six categories: investigation, critical historical thinking, knowledge building, argument development and communication. Formative work was only 5% of the overall grade be- cause Hunscher-Young believed classwork and homework should only be viewed as a practice and completed for mastery and independent learning.
Hunscher-Young and her colleague first implemented the plan in 2016. Four years later, when Hunscher-Young left WIHI for CHS, she knew she wanted to bring this grading model with her.
To successfully transfer this approach, Hunscher-Young created a book club at CHS, which studied the history of the Ameri- can schooling system, and joined a workshop at WIHI, all in the interest of developing this new model with other educators around Washtenaw County. One of the curious instructors who participated was Maneesha Mankad, a math teacher at CHS.
“I don’t think grades should be a reflection of anyone’s behavior,” Mankad said. “It becomes a gatekeeper to access many different things, whether that be high-level courses, being able to drive or get- ting better insurance rates. If I am not conscious of these things, my students are experiencing a lack of opportunities in the outside world as a result.”
With this philosophy, Mankad and the math department at CHS deemed it necessary to go through their own assessment network training. There, they improved their teaching methods, and by understanding these practices, they also realized how much grades impact students’ lives.
“It’s not just like I’ve always said, ‘grades are just a reflection of what you know at this point in time,’” Mankad said. “I feel like kids end up being penalized for something that was just a snapshot of their life, which freezes them in time.”
In fact, Mankad’s primary motivation behind coming to CHS’ was that the school does not “track” grades; students are not placed in upper or lower-level classes based on academic ability, hence not diminishing student confidence or categorizing them.
“By labeling students, you undermine their confidence in their own ability,” Mankad said. “You just need to learn how to learn. It’s a process that you’re going to go through your whole entire life. I just want my students to believe that they can learn anything.”
As this unorthodox system aimed for mastery, not grades, it also mitigated unfair consequences that teachers like Hunscher-Young and Mankad hoped to avoid.
“When a student is at a 40% or 50%, and you know they really know the content, but they just didn’t do X, Y and Z at the beginning of the semester, a lot of people realized, well, this doesn’t make sense,” Hunshcer-Young said. “It’s a big shift. It requires a lot of time for teachers to really understand their content, and know what developmental skills they really want their students to have and how to teach those skills directly.”
Educators at CHS realized that the pandemic has left learning gaps between students. So, in applying this new grading standard, they hoped to transform students from “dependent learners” to become their “own best resource.”
In Hunscher-Young’s classroom, she carved out more time for students to reflect on her feedback, thus letting them truly understand the material learned and said do- ing so gave her a concrete understanding of how to support her students’ needs.
“I think that’s what Communi- ty’s all about: getting students to be in charge of their own learning and education,” Hunscher-Young said. “I believe it’ll help in post-secondary education and show my students how to manage their time. If you can do well in my class without doing every homework or classwork assignment, that’s okay. What I care about is if you’re learning and understanding the material.”
Mankad also had a similar vision of her students accepting and addressing their struggles.
“When a student doesn’t score well, I don’t want them to think they can’t do Calculus or Algebra but accept that it’s just going to take them longer, and that’s OK,” Mankad said.
As a result, Mankad became more mindful of her own teaching. Whether it was better supporting her students’ needs or giving students the chance to show improvement, she sought to design a grading system that does not just take “a snapshot of their life.” So, Mankad implemented a “sliding scale” rubric for her assessments that was dynamic, involved student participation, scaled from one to four, and, as she hoped, addressed students’ needs.
Mankad walks around and talks with her students about the problem on the board. Mankad regularly works to remain available for her students; she wants them to ask about and understand everything. “We don’t want to just keep moving ahead without having made sure we are solidifying what we’ve learned,” Mankad said.
Mankad has also considered not grading homework. She believed that the importance of doing homework is for the practice of mastery, and, by handing down a grade, Mankad realized that doing so only incentivized cheating, not learning.
“When you play an instrument, you aren’t given points for practicing. However, you are judged for your performance on concert day,” Mankad said.
Mankad settled on making students’ homework ten percent of their grade but hopes to change it soon. She also plans to pilot a more inquiry-based curriculum for her future Calculus classes.
“I like trying to make it more student-centered,” Mankad said. “We’re doing it in Algebra 1, Algebra 2, and Geometry, but we don’t yet have access to such a program for Calculus.”
Mankad believes that instilling such a curriculum can effectively develop students’ creative problem-solving and critical and logical thinking. In this next month, Mankad is focusing on also helping build her student’s confidence.”
We don’t want to just keep moving ahead without having made sure we are solidifying what we’ve learned,” Mankad said.
A CHS senior, Ariana Levin, is a student in Mankad’s Calculus class and has taken comfort in the class’s new grading system. For example, stress from heavily-weighted tests is a thing of the past for Levin.
“I really like how [Mankad] is let- ting us have room to learn,” Levin said. “I know [with] a lot of teachers, [tests are] a snapshot of your current knowledge, but that’s not giving room for students to expand on their own learning and take it into their own hands.”
Levin has benefitted not only from the new test-grading system but also from its effects on homework. She feels more motivated to do precisely for the reasons Mankad hopes: it is good practice for her tests.
“I really like how [Mankad has] phrased homework as a practice because I know a lot of teachers make homework the majority of your grade, and if you copy the homework from another student, you’re not really learning it,” Levin said. “The reason kids copy is because it’s a large part of your grade. But, if it’s insignificant, I think students would be more inclined to actually want to learn it because it’s not enough points to cheat.”