San Luis Coastal Unified School District replaces the letter grading system with a standards-based one



School: You love it, hate it, or feel ambivalent toward it. But there’s no escaping its far-reaching grasp. Just suck it up and quietly learn your reading, writing, and arithmetic, kiddos.

But has the quest for that all-important “A” pushed learning aside in favor of simply succeeding? At least one school district thinks so.

This year, San Luis Coastal Unified School District adopted a new standards-based grading system for its elementary schools. Rather than giving students a traditional letter grade—A, B, C, D, or F—teachers grade their students using a four-point number system based on Common Core standards, which California schools began implementing in 2013.

Under those standards—which are expected to be fully integrated into state curricula by 2015—students are required to learn fewer topics throughout the year. The hope is that they will have a deeper understanding of the topics taught in class, with an emphasis on depth and understanding of each subject, rather than quantity of subjects taught.

In response to the new shift in state standards, San Luis Coastal began discussing the possibility of a new grading system. A committee of 37 teachers, along with various administrators, began meeting in May of 2013 to discuss the idea and create a pilot program. The template, grading scales, and chosen standards to assess students are now on track for implementation across San Luis Coastal’s 10 elementary schools.

On a traditional report card, students receive one grade for each of the various subjects: math, reading, etc. The grades are based on an average of the work over the trimester and reflect a variety of skills and criteria. But under the new grading system, subjects are divided into a list of skills that students are responsible for learning. The students’ progress is then evaluated on a numeric scale based on whether they meet the standards designated for each grade level. For example, a student who receives a “1” would not be meeting the required expectations, while a student who receives a “4” would be exceeding them. The student’s proficiency is reported separately from learning behaviors, such as working together with peers, following the rules, and critical thinking.

Jim Quesenberry, president of the district’s school board, is confident that the new system will prove successful.

“This system is much more specific, it’s not as nebulous,” Quesenberry said. “We had teachers give their input on the modifications, and I really think that this is the direction that all the districts will eventually take.”

Quesenberry said it might take some time before the new system can be used in local high schools, but he’s confident that with some coordination and communication between UCs and CSUs, the new grading method could be beneficial for parents, students, and teachers.

Amy Shields, the elementary director of learning for the district, was the driving force behind the implementation of the new system. When she took the position of elementary director 3 1/2 years ago, it was one of the first requests teachers made of the district.

“Teachers overall were very dissatisfied with our old report card system, so there was lots of interest and support for a new one,” Shields said. “I would not say there were critics of it, but there were teachers who wanted all the details to be worked out before we began the program. That’s understandable, because the teachers have a lot on their plates, and they’re working really hard to implement positive changes in the curriculum and pedagogy in their classrooms.”

With one grading period now complete, teachers, parents, and administrators have said the results are good.

“What I have heard so far has been extremely positive,” Shields said. “One aspect the teachers are really appreciating is the ability to record the grades using an online computerized system. And I am hearing positive responses from parents about the goal-setting portion of the new card.”

Shields said the adoption of the new Common Core state standards provided an opportunity for the district to begin reevaluating how it assesses the students and reports their progress to parents. According to Shields, the new program is the result of roughly one year of research and discussion to ensure the transition goes as smoothly as possible.

“Standards-based report cards are not new,” Shields said. “Rather than taking an average of a student’s grades over the trimester, a standards-based reporting system lets parents know where the child is right now, and what the next steps are for the child’s learning. The grading provides feedback to support future learning.”

Mike Godsey, an English teacher at Morro Bay High School, also looks at the new grading system as a positive change in local schools and an exciting change of direction.

“A lot of great thinkers around the country think that traditional grading systems are archaic and don’t fit with our modern pedagogical objectives and teaching styles,” Godsey said. “I have a lot of faith in our school board, our district, our local administrators, and our hard-working staff to know the best way to teach these skills. I’m excited to see what’s next.”


Intern Adriana Catanzarite can be reached via Managing Editor Ashley Schwellenbach at

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