High marks for Ellis grading

Ellis social studies teacher Pete Walker helps seventh-grade students on Greek word assignment Thursday.

Ellis Middle School teachers are getting good grades on their grading.

Ellis is the southeast region winner of the Minnesota Association of Secondary School Principals’ Star of Innovation Award for its Grading for Learning policy, which Ellis officials say better reflects what students know by separating academic and life skills grades.

“We’re being recognized by our colleagues and our peers,” said Ellis Principal Katie Berglund.

Berglund said Ellis teachers have spent about four years researching and implementing Grading for Learning, which came about after teachers compared student grades to Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment scores.

The grading system shift started in 2008, after middle school math teachers Curtis Bartlett and Eric Harder took a master’s course where they analyzed a book on grading inflation and related solutions. Bartlett and Harder decided to use several different grading strategies in their classes for the 2008-09 school year.

The new grading policy worked so well that Ellis officials eventually took it school-wide, tweaking

Seventh-graders discuss Greek words during teacher Pete Walker’s fourth-period World History class Thursday at Ellis Middle School. — Trey Mewes/trey.mewes@austindailyherald.com — Trey Mewes/trey.mewes@austindailyherald.com

it to its current form where students receive two grades based on academics and behavior. Their academic grades account for 90 percent of their overall class grade, with the life skills grade worth 10 percent. In addition, homework is treated as practice instead of a major part of a grade, but students are still graded on whether they turn in things on-time.

Ellis officials find wide acceptance among parents and educators alike. Teachers and administrators routinely present their work on Grading for Learning at education conferences, including this year’s Minnesota Association of School Administrators Spring Conference, which took place last week. Berglund even found herself explaining Grading for Learning on Fox News in November 2010.

“We feel this is vitally necessary,” Berglund said.

What’s more, superintendents and administrators are finding themselves agreeing with Ellis’s approach. Berglund said she saw “a lot of head-nodding” from her audience at the MASA conference. Administrators from four middle schools in South Washington County Schools — which services Cottage Grove, Woodbury, Newport and St. Paul Park in the Twin Cities area — recently visited Ellis to learn more about Grading for Learning.

Other schools are co-opting the grading system for their own use. Hayfield High School is in its first year of Grading for Learning, which uses the academic grade portion to measure student knowledge. Hayfield officials say the new system is working out fine, with little disparities in student grades.

“We really have not seen a significant change in the grades our students are receiving,” said Hayfield Principal Brandon Macrafic.

Macrafic said Hayfield’s policy doesn’t put academic weight on behavioral grades, though students receive three behavioral grades for each course which counts for honor roll rankings and school activity eligibility. Student academic grades are separated into grades for larger projects, tests, performances and presentations, whereas homework and practice work are another grade.

Hayfield officials came to their grading policy in a similar way to Ellis, as they discussed grade inflation after comparing MCA scores to student grades. They heard about Ellis’s Grading for Learning and decided to use pieces of the alternative grade structures at Ellis, Lincoln High School in Lake City and Minnetonka High School to create their current policy.

“We can trust the grades are accurate,” Macrafic said. “They communicate student learning, student achievement.”

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