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Goodbye to Grades: Windsor Locks Schools Pioneer a New Way to Assess Students

David DesRoches
The self-assessment process requires students to provide evidence that they've judged their work accurately.

Jennifer Necci is trying to get seventh graders to tell her how well they think they’re writing about a book they’ve read.  

“Let’s self-assess ourselves," Necci tells her students, as a lawnmower slices through grass outside her classroom window. "Trying this strategy out, on a fist of five, how many of us were able to clarify, support and complicate or deepen our thinking about the theme. Fist of five, one, two, three, go. Let me see the hands.”

They’ve each written summaries on different short stories. Sophie Marcella wrote about Farewell to Violet by Ellen Dobson. “You know, it draws my attention because of how the author uses his craft techniques to put it all together,” Sophie said.

Students write about the story that resonates with them, so they stay more engaged with what they’re learning.

English teacher Lauren Balboni said the self-assessment process requires students to provide evidence that they’ve judged their work accurately. 

“We use rubrics, and they have to use the rubrics to self-assess to show us that they were able to master that standard," Balboni said. "And if they are truly able to master a standard, they can do it multiple times.”

In education lingo, a rubric is a set of criteriastudents use to see if they’ve mastered a standard. It’s similar to how Amazon judges the quality of used books. If it’s pristine, it’s considered like new. If it’s barely bound together, it’s labeled acceptable.

Being able to choose what you learn about, and how well you know what you’ve learned, are key parts of what’s called competency-based learning, a model that's been phasing in over four years at Windsor Locks.

Graduates in the year 2020 are expected to be the first to not have letter grades on their transcript. 

But what about applying to colleges? If there are no grades, how does a school know your GPA?

District Superintendent Susie Bell said she understands that concern. That’s why Windsor Locks is working with a professor from Central Connecticut State University to ensure that graduating seniors are prepared for the next level.

Bell said the professor's input has been an important part of the district's transition.

"If we’re going to make sure that kids are college ready, then we need feedback from the colleges on whether or not those standards are robust and rigorous enough for that,” Bell said.

Credit David DesRoches / WNPR

For Professor Tony Rigazio-DiGilio, the partnership could be considered a model for how public school districts and colleges can work together. "This small work with Windsor Locks -- one district -- is certainly going to move that needle forward in terms of making a difference in what a competency-based diploma looks like and what it means for colleges," he said.

Rigazio-DiGilio is director of CCSU’s educational leadership program. He said the partnership has helped both Windsor Locks and the university understand each other, and their expectations for students.

"I think the more these kinds of opportunities and relationships and partnerships can be developed the better, absolutely," he said. "I think it benefits both institutions. The college and the school district. "

Back at South Elementary School, fifth-grader Abigail Gallagher has written a summary about the last book in the Harry Potter series. Her classmates are giving her feedback.

Instead of a grade, Abigail is trying to get what they call a “meets.” This means they’ve met, or mastered, a certain standard. If a student hasn’t mastered a standard, then he or she’s assessed based on where they are in the process of getting there.

Here’s how Abigail explains it: “Say we’re doing fluency, and my summary is easy to read, and the ideas are connected with transitional words, that would be a meets, and that’s like where you want to be at the end of the year,” she said.

When I told a group of fifth-graders that most schools use an A through F grading system, their faces twisted. Here's how fifth grader Renee Homan sees it.

“Well I think this one is better, because you don’t fail, you just progress toward the standard,” Renee said.

The district admits that the transition into a competency model hasn't been easy, but early indicators show the system could be working. Test scores are up, and discipline referrals are down.

For sixth-grader Jamaldeen Obaid, Windsor Locks has figured it out.

"I know a lot of kids that have problems at home and they're not getting the help that they need," Jamaldeen said. "But in this school, they probably will. Because I know if there's ever a problem that I need help with, there's a teacher or the school counselor, anybody, just there to help me. And I think that's really really cool. I have somebody to rely on. That's pretty awesome."

States and school districts across the country are also developing competency-based models, but Windsor Locks is one of few traditional public schools that's pioneering this new philosophy.

David finds and tells stories about education and learning for WNPR radio and its website. He also teaches journalism and media literacy to high school students, and he starts the year with the lesson: “Conflicts of interest: Real or perceived? Both matter.” He thinks he has a sense of humor, and he also finds writing in the third person awkward, but he does it anyway.

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