Students would be graded for what they know about Tennessee’s new academic standards rather than getting averaged A-F letter grades under a significant shift being explored by Shelby County Schools.

The practice, called “standards-based grading,” aims to better measure how well students are prepared for the the state’s standardized test and eventually the ACT college entrance exam.

Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin shared the idea Tuesday with school board members as the district seeks to complete its first-ever academic plan since the 2013 merger of city and county schools.

Talk of a completely new grading system comes as Tennessee’s largest district seeks to rebound from low test scores under the state’s new academic standards and tougher test. It also represents the first serious look at revamping district-wide grading practices since investigators recommended instituting more uniform policies after discovering a culture of improper grade changes at one high school.

“We want to make sure our students aren’t just receiving grades and doing the work, but that those grades are aligned to the standards that the state is asking us to master on the test,” Griffin said. “And we want to make sure that the report card grades are also aligned to that mastery.”

But any changes likely would be more than a year away. District officials want to do more research and to vet the idea with teachers, parents, and school leaders.

A switch to standards-based grading would put a permanent end to some schools’ use of “grade floors,” a practice of setting a minimum on the lowest grade a teacher can assign, which had been a gray area in the district’s grading policy.

“A grading floor would not be necessary if all teachers employed standards-based grading,” a report to school board members said. “However, in the absence of a standards-based grading policy, Shelby County Schools will reinforce that assignments should be designed to measure students’ mastery of standards (and) that all current grading policies should be adhered to.”

Standards-based grading isn’t completely new in Memphis. Teachers who taught early grades under the former Memphis City Schools used the practice to provide qualitative reports to parents, describing how well their students were doing in specific areas. And the practice is still used at Campus School, one of the Shelby County Schools’ highest-performing schools, which is also affiliated with the University of Memphis.

There’s little research on how the practice impacts a student’s learning experience. However, a 2011 University of Kentucky study reported that most teachers and parents in Kentucky districts that used standards-based grading found the new report cards easy to understand and more meaningful than A-F grades. Teachers said the report cards required more time, but that “the quality of information they could provide made the extra effort worthwhile.”

You can view a sample of a standards-based report card below:

PHOTO: The Glossary of Education Reform
Sample report card under standard-based grading.