The New Math

Optional homework? Do-over exams? A novel way of grading is growing in popularity.

The education revolution was unfurling quietly during Wauwatosa’s January finals week – the do-over finals week, that is. As part of a new grading system, high school students were allowed to retake exams that didn’t go so well the first time. Part of the bargain was submitting to a full week of reteaching and testing.

“I can’t be the only one who thinks retake week is a joke,” wrote one aggravated student on the anonymous social media app Yik Yak. Other kids stuck in review sessions texted, “Get me out of here!” to their parents.

The confusing exam schedule and fuss on social media accompanied a serious change of course for Wauwatosa schools. This academic year, the district began implementing a program called “Grading for Learning,” which, supporters argue, values mastery over memorization and frees student testing from the constraints of timetables.

“Who can determine when the end of learning is?” says Elizabeth Erenberger, director of teaching and learning for the district. “When kids get feedback, they should have opportunities to learn again.”

The goal of Grading for Learning is for students to meet carefully selected benchmarks – but without the pressure of deadlines. If a student bombs a midterm, he or she receives additional instruction and more chances to demonstrate mastery. Wauwatosa West High School social studies teacher Mary Johnston, who’s taught in the district for 24 years, says she’s inspired by the new approach and tells her students that, instead of scoring points on a test, they’re climbing a mountain together.

“If I’m doing my job as a teacher,” she says, “I’m moving a lot of kids closer to that summit. I’m not just sorting them out on a bell curve.”

Proponents say artificial cutoffs for learning have long discouraged students who fall short. “We should not be time-bound to say that in math, if you don’t know factoring by Oct. 30, then you can never demonstrate that you’re better at it in December,” says Nick Hughes, principal of Wauwatosa East High School. But second chances on tests also encourage slackers to slack, according to Stephan Baker, a senior at East. “It’s great for kids who are just gaming the system.”

Even with its doubters, Grading for Learning has become standard practice in a handful of local districts. Waukesha and Kettle Moraine are several years in, and Franklin, New Berlin, Pewaukee and Elmbrook are monitoring the results of Wauwatosa’s first year. Its final exam retakes are unusual even under Grading for Learning, but administrators say parents weary of high-stakes tests pushed the idea during info sessions this fall.

Exam retakes elicited gripes, but the most controversial aspect of Wauwatosa’s new grading regime may be its approach to homework. It’s not graded; however, if students want the option to retake their finals, they have to complete all of it.

“In our house, the homework is required, but it’s a hard sell,” says Wauwatosa East parent Meg Lee. She worries that academic expectations will ratchet up after high school. “I don’t think this is representative of what kids will face in college,” she says.

Jake Rabishaw, a sophomore at East, turned in all of his homework last semester, so he was eligible to retake algebra, German and global studies exams in January. “Going over things helps you learn more,” he says. “It can bring up your grade.”

But what do good grades mean if students get multiple chances to earn them? Wauwatosa educators insist that grade inflation is not a concern. “If my child got an A the first time,” says principal Hughes, “and someone else’s child did a retake and got it up to an A, I’d say that’s great for both of them.”

‘The New Math’ appears in the May, 2015, issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
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