Skagway’s School District held an open forum late January in part to discuss a proposed change in the school’s grading policy.

Superintendent Dr. Joshua Coughran said while the conversation about a policy change has been reported on in School Board meetings throughout the year, the forum was the first detailed presentation to the public on what is proposed.

Part of the discussion centered around the usage of standards-based grading, a type of grading structure different from the familiar trappings of As, Bs and Cs.

Rather than being based on a percentage system like traditional grading, standards-based grading is proficiency-based, measures achievement and involves measuring students’ proficiency on defined course objectives.

While he said that standards-based grading would be only a single component to the changing grading policy, Coughran said he is excited to potentially provide that kind of reporting, especially at the elementary level.

“I think it’s going to lead to better conversations between students and teachers, teachers and parents, administration and teachers,” Coughran said. “It’s really going to help guide a lot of things.”

High school is a more complicated beast, however.

“When it comes to secondary [education] there’s a lot of high stakes that go along with it from GPA (grade point average) that translates into scholarship money,” Coughran said. “When we first sat down, that was one of the things that, as a staff, we came up with. We can’t just slap this onto K-12 and go forward, because that’s just going to be a route to failure, upset parents, upset students.”

When examining how to implement the standards-based system at the high school level, Coughran said the school is looking at a staggered approach.

As it is rolls out in the K-6 elementary grades, Coughran said staff will be discussing sound grading policy in the high school, and whether or not that will include a true representation of standards-based grading. Those conversations will be held over the next two years, should the change in grading policy get the board’s approval.
Coughran said that parents’ reactions to the presented information at the forum were “cautiously optimistic.”

“I think there’s a lot of concern,” Coughran said. “Any time you change something inside the education system, there’s going to be some fear, some resistance, but I think as far as conceptually, most of the people that spoke, and most of the people that I’ve had other, informal conversations with, really like the idea behind standards-based grading.

“It’s really the implementation that’s going to be the tricky part, or at least the part that’s going to take some deliberate action on our part.”

Much of the feedback from those with concerns, according to Coughran, was looking at the issue as it relates to secondary education – how a change in grading policy would affect high school GPA and students’ ability to get scholarships.

John Hischer, board president, said he was pleased to be engaged by the parents and teachers in attendance at the forum. Hearing their opinions, Hischer said, was exciting.

“I’m glad that people were able to come out and express their thoughts about the proposed changes to the grading scale, the way we assess and report the grades,” Hischer said. “I think they brought up a lot of great points.”

In talking about the change, Hischer said he wants to enable better communication between parents and teachers in regards to what their child can improve upon, and where they are doing well already.

“My biggest hope would be that parents get a more accurate reflection of what their child is learning, and that they are able to see that,” Hischer said.

Rolling the proposed changes out in a responsible and incremental way will be important, according to Hischer, and parental education on the grading changes will be critical. Hischer said that in instances where standards-based grading was not successful, part of the problem was insufficient education of parents on how the new system works.

Coughran and other representatives of the school will be attending a conference in March to learn more about the subject, and potentially get answers to concerns.

“Our hope is that we walk away with a system that works for us, for kids and for parents,” Coughran said.

Following that, Hischer said the board will likely discuss the matter at its April meeting.

“Before we vote on anything, I’d like to see another community forum about that, at least one more,” Hischer said. “This is such a big change that we want to make sure that everyone is on board, and everyone has an idea of what’s coming.”