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School Seeks 2-Year Grade Moratorium

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the first request of its kind under school restructuring, teachers at Bay Park Elementary will ask trustees today for a two-year waiver of letter grades in social studies and science while they plan an improved curriculum and seek better ways of judging a student’s academic progress.

The school staff is experimenting with new methods of teaching science and social studies, such as having students show their understanding of concepts and skills in the two subjects by putting together original projects such as videos, plays, speeches and dioramas, both individually and in groups. Students would be given more hands-on activities to explore concepts such as photosynthesis, rather than simply reading about them in a textbook.

The teachers say that traditional grades now given in elementary schools do not reflect what is taught in science and social studies because they are based on pencil-and-paper tests given at the end of textbook chapters. The school wants the grades moratorium to give teachers time to design new tests that move away from measuring only rote information.

“Tests and grades drive the curriculum,” said Bay Park resource teacher Amy Quinney, summarizing the staffs’ view that teachers will be reluctant to try new ways of boosting academic achievement unless they can shed traditional measurements that emphasize repetition of skills.

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“We want to decide on the best curriculum first, and then design an assessment that measures it accurately.”

For principal Barbara Coates, the idea “hit home” after she observed second-graders memorizing the names of the seven continents without having a clue as to what continents are.

“They couldn’t tell you two months from now what those names are unless you have also showed them what continents consist of, such as explaining Antarctica” compared to North America, and why it looks like an island on a map, “and ask them to think about things, to go beyond (learning) names to show they really understand,” Coates said.

Fifth-grade teacher Judi Vignos said, “We were seeing students having some facts about science, but they couldn’t demonstrate what to do” with them.

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Under school restructuring in the San Diego Unified district, an individual school can petition top administrators and the Board of Education for permission to try innovative methods. Until now, most schools have asked for waivers in policies relating to administration or in selection of principals.

The Bay Park request is the first major effort to link new teaching programs to performance evaluation, in which teachers nationwide are moving to minimize longstanding multiple-choice, fill-in-the-blank tests in favor of projects, essays and writing portfolios to judge what students learn.

“We’re not trying to get away from accountability,” fourth-grade teacher Pam Bacon said, anticipating criticism that lack of a letter grade means they will have no way of judging student progress accurately. “To the contrary, we want students to show how they apply the skills and facts we teach . . . to integrate materials from social studies, and science, and math.”

Bay Park chose the areas of social studies and science for its initial efforts because those subjects are not critical to elementary education, compared with reading and math.

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“We still have grades in those areas,” Bacon said, although noting that district planners are piloting several efforts--including some at Bay Park--to base language and math grades on tests requiring students to write essays and show how they solved a math problem, rather than just marking a correct multiple-choice answer.

The teachers have received strong backing from parents at Bay Park, although they expected more hesitation because so many parents see grades as the only way to judge whether their children are succeeding or not.

“I think they saw how much their children are enjoying school this year,” Vignos said.

Bay Park teachers, as one example, taught weights and measurements this year by having students make predictions, the way a scientist would test a hypothesis, about the weights of an item before carrying out a measurement.

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In Teresa Cope’s first-grade, the students tested their predictions by weighing stuffed bears.

“The kids respond much more enthusiastically,” Copes said. “They get much more out of a project. . . . The whole idea is that you explore, you work together.”

Bay Park teachers will test ways of evaluating the social studies and science curricula during the next year, Coates said, perhaps by creating a report-card type of document listing performance skills that are key to understanding the subjects.

In the meantime, they will give students “effort grades,” which indicate the willingness of children to participate actively in learning.

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“There are ungraded schools across this country, so the idea of not having grades in certain subjects” is far from unique, Coates said. “Ideally, we might want to see (alternatives) for grades in all subjects, but we are realistic enough to start here and see what we come up with to make students achieve better.”


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