One Valley School District's Unorthodox Educational Approach: No More Grades

Aug 25, 2015

As students head back for another year of school, one small district in the valley is on the cutting edge of education. The Lindsay School district has eliminated grades and grade levels. School leaders say the scheme has transformed education.

Its 7:30 a.m. on the first day of school and students at the Lindsay High School re-connect with friends and wait for the bell to ring.

The roughly 1,000 students are part of just a handful of districts in the country using a system called Performance Based Grading.

"When I am better at math than some other kids, I can move ahead to what I need to rather than being held back," Paola Rusiles

The basic idea is that rather than moving students through grade levels as a class, let them finish their course work at their own speed, regardless of what year they are in school.

17-year old Senior Leif Ceasar explains it this way.

“I am a lot stronger in history, English, science than I am in math, for example. I moved ahead of the class in those classes. With math I have been more with the class,” Ceaser said. 

Leif Ceasar and his friends
Credit Jeffrey Hess / Valley Public Radio

Instead of assigning students a letter grade on an ‘A’ through ‘F’ scale they receive a number marking their progression through a set of benchmarks that note their proficiency in a subject.

A "1" is the foundational work, moving up to a "4" being the highest level of skill.

If at any point a student earns a "3", they can move on to the next level of course work regardless of their year or scores in other subjects.

So for students like 13-year old Freshman Paola Rusiles, when they are ready to advance, they move on.

“That’s very helpful for me because I am mostly good at math and not that good at ELA. When I am better at math than some other kids, I can move ahead to what I need to rather than being held back,” Rusiles said.

School leaders say the entire district transitioned to the Performance Based Grading system about seven years ago after repeated attempts to improve the district failed.

"If you want something you have never had, you have to do something you have never done" Jaime Robles

School dean of culture Abbey Forbus greets the students on the sunny concrete in the center of the campus overlooked by the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

She says since they instituted Performance Based Grading, they have seen their graduation rate rise to nearly 90-percent and last year they sent 40-percent of their students to four year colleges.

“Basically we believe that all learners learn in different times and different ways. And if that is the case, why do we put them all in a class and say everyone must be here and then move forward from there,” Forbus said.

Forbus says it is incredibly common for students to be at different levels in different subjects or move up a unit in the middle of the year.

“If you want something you have never had, you have to do something you have never done,”

Now an administrator, Jaime Robles was principal of the high school before and during the shift.

He says prior to Performance Based Grading the school was rife with drugs, violent gangs and dropouts.

Now that the school focuses on each student’s strengths and weaknesses, he says those behavioral problems have been greatly reduced.

“There goes some of the classroom management issues. There goes some of the frustration and boredom. There goes some of the roots for absenteeism. There goes some of the problems with dropouts. If you are able to really effectively to meet everybody at their level versus asking the kids to hold tight while the teacher teaches to the middle,” Robles said.

It’s been a transition for the teachers as well.

English teacher Brandy Quintero had to totally re-think how she runs her class.

“I know that I get to take time to actually teach students to proficiency. But at the same time it is harder because I have to be more prepared. I have to be prepared for the students who are ready to go faster than I am teaching. I have to be prepared for the students who are going to take more time,” Quintero said.

But how could simply changing how students are graded generate such dramatic changes both in and out of the classroom?

Matt Townsley is an education researcher and administrator at a school in Iowa that uses a system similar to Lindsay’s.

He says the common model of grading punishes students for practicing, obscures true progress, and limits students…all problems Performance Based Grading attempts to address.

"I have to be prepared for the students who are ready to go faster than I am teaching. I have to be prepared for the students who are going to take more time" Brandy Quintero, teacher

However, he thinks the new system has been slow to catch on because it is such a big change from what adults are used to.

“It’s also perhaps why our communities, our public, are so used to experiencing school the same way time and time again because most of them experienced it and where fairly successful due to that experience,” Townsley said.

Townsley estimates that fewer than 100 schools across the nation are using a performance based system.

In Lindsay, school leaders say there is no way they would ever go back.