NUSD implements proficiency-based grading

The NUSD School District is on track to transition every department to a 1-4 grading scale known as the proficiency-based scale in about three to five years. As of now, some individual classes and most of the math department have switched over to the scale at San Marin. With the recent push from the district, all grades and departments from Kindergarten to 12th are expected to soon follow this path.

The proficiency-based grading scale, otherwise known as a standard-based or mastery grading scale, has been a long debated system amongst those in the education field. Many may remember using it in elementary school, or even more recently at some of the classes at San Marin. The scale uses number grades of 1-4 to determine whether a student has mastered, is close to, or is far away from mastering a topic. The main point of it is to create a system that accurately represents the knowledge and effort used by students to meet expected subject standards. 

Students around the country continue to bring up many pressing questions about the system, including how this will work for college transcripts when most universities still use the standardized grading system. Many of these questions revolve around the process of taking a 1-4 number grade and converting it into a letter grade. While there will eventually be a shift away from letter grades completely, as of now teachers in secondary schools are struggling to find the right way to reflect a student’s performance and convert it into a grade that universities will understand. However, with time and adjustments, the system may end up doing exactly what it should, and that, according to English teacher Melissa Matheny-Muñoz, is: 

“it can improve an understanding of what a grade means and how to inform students of what they need to grow. So overall, a fuller understanding through through consistency among teachers and transparency for students.” 

Munoz is a member of a district-wide teacher team working on the proficiency grading scale, with hopes to create consistency with the grading scale in the future. 

Chemistry teacher Virginia Vogl, another member of the district-wide team, recognized the fears of students in relation to enacting the grading system into all departments at San Marin as well as what will happen at the college-level. 

“I think a lot of fear that comes from that change is what’s going to happen at the college or university level. But at the same time, if education is moving in that direction then they do have two adapt to that,” Vogl said. “I think it’s an uncomfortable place for some people because they’re so used to grades and it’s so ingrained in our system that that change is a hard change.” 

Students are also having a hard time with the grading system due to the fact that many have found a way to get around the entire point of the system to master topics within a class. 

Sophomore Bryce Duffin reaffirmed this opinion, mentioning the multiple subject checkpoints students have to meet within a class.  

“It’s not a good system. It’s kind of like I don’t have to know the subject, I just have to know it right before I retake it,” Duffin said.

While there continues to be much controversy, many teachers share positive opinions of the proficiency-based grading system and hope that in the future students will be able to realize the effectiveness of the scale. 

Vogl had a different way of viewing the grading scale, helping students to better understand the purpose of the system. 

“I sort of compare it to sports. Say you’re going to have a game at the end of the week,” Vogl said. “Anything you do during practice is going to help you, whether it’s a drill, whether it’s running or a scrimmage, all of those little pieces are going to help you get better at your game. You have multiple chances or ‘games’ throughout the season to improve until championship season.”

Vogl related “championship season” to the end of the year finals. Before this season comes, students have the opportunity to retake tests on certain topics to help them better achieve mastery. 

This system is being initiated in many states around the country due to its popularity and importance when it comes to student learning. Kathy Warren, San Marin’s Assistant Principal, backs the effectiveness of the grading scale and discusses the potential benefits her students would have had using the scale. 

“Mastery grading is a matter of the things you need to learn to say you can master this topic. It can almost be a way to individualize a learning platform for every student,”  Warren said. “If I had had a way to mastery grade it would have been so much more fair for my students.”

Many students have also had the chance to experience the scale’s effectiveness first hand, including freshman Devin Villaluna.

“I think it actually works. It’s nice to have because you don’t have a variety of multiple letter grades and it gives you a chance to retake tests to fix your grade,” Villaluna said. 

While there continues to be a variety of questions and opinions on the proficiency-based grading scale, the district is still in the process of smoothing out the bumps and creating a system that more accurately reflects student’s knowledge and achievements. 

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