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Mission-Based Grading Raises Rowland Hall's National Profile
Posted 11/20/2017 08:18PM

Late this past spring, two members of the Rowland Hall community added publication credits to their resumes. Annie Barton, Middle School academic dean, and Wendell Thomas, director of curriculum and instruction, published a feature article about Rowland Hall's Mission-Based Grading program in Independent School magazine. The issue focused on the changing landscape of education, and Rowland Hall's four-year-old project tackling grading reform in the Middle School was perfect subject matter.

Mission-Based Grading is just what its name suggests: a method of evaluating student work and development based on how it aligns with our mission statement. Teachers assess students in grades six through eight in three categories: academic mastery, which indicates a student's knowledge, understanding, and skill development; productivity, which evaluates learning behaviors and study habits; and contributions, which represents ethical citizenship and community building. Grades in each category correspond to a four-point scale based on proficiency levels: Exceeding, Meeting, Approaching, and Unsatisfactory. Students may also receive a "+" after Meeting and Approaching, to signify growth within a category.

In their article, Ms. Barton and Mr. Thomas articulated the primary motivation for the change: "Creating a new grading system that focuses on students' productivity and contributions gives teachers an opportunity to leverage middle-school students' maturing brains and help them develop skills and mindsets that promote learning, self-reliance, and empathy."

The program was introduced experimentally in 2014-2015 before sixth-grade teachers officially piloted it in 2015-2016. Last year it expanded to seventh grade, and now it has completely replaced traditional grading in the Middle School. Throughout the implementation process, the detailed rubric for Mission-Based Grading was revised multiple times—and, according to Ms. Barton, will continue to evolve as we achieve a deeper understanding of how the initiative impacts student learning.

While the transition to Mission-Based Grading was not without its growing pains, teachers have observed student behaviors shifting from questions about points or percentages to requests for feedback about the learning process. And now, four years in, several Middle School faculty members are confident that this grading system is helping them become the best teachers they can be.

When Ms. Barton and Mr. Thomas decided they were ready to publish Rowland Hall's story of grading reform, they had two primary goals: to share their experience with the broader community of independent school leaders and thinkers, and to demonstrate to other schools that it's okay to try new things, if they will improve student experience. Mr. Thomas said, "We've had evidence about the limitations of traditional grading for over 100 years, and there have been very few changes," which made Rowland Hall's program that much more important to share.

As far as we know, Rowland Hall is the first school in the country to build its grading system based on its mission. Mr. Thomas is aware other schools have tried different initiatives to "be more thoughtful and creative about reporting on non-cognitive skills," but none have a program comparable to ours. As a result, the article generated significant interest in Mission-Based Grading, and Ms. Barton and Mr. Thomas have received a great deal of positive feedback.

"I've never heard from so many colleagues who want to learn about Rowland Hall," Ms. Barton said. They've told her, for instance, "We've been wanting to try something like this," or, "We're eager to learn more about how you did this and how it's going." The Marshall Memo, a weekly e-newsletter featuring the best research, practices, and publications in education, featured the Independent School article in its May 27 issue. Ms. Barton and Mr. Thomas also received positive reviews from Thomas Guskey, a professor at the University of Kentucky regarded as a top national expert on grading reform.

Ms. Barton said peer schools have expressed a great deal of interest in the rubric itself—they're curious about the details of the grading system and how they might adopt something similar. Doug Reeves, an award-winning writer and researcher on educational leadership, commented that he wished he had this rubric when he was teaching middle school.

Furthermore, experts believe non-traditional grading systems lay the groundwork for success in higher education, too. Richard Badenhausen, dean of the Honors College at Westminster College, said: "What impresses me most about Rowland Hall's work on Mission-Based Grading is how well this prepares students for college. As a consultant who regularly visits universities around the country, I have discovered that the most successful curriculums are ones that ask students to reflect on their learning in these very intentional and creative ways."

In addition to writing the article, Mr. Thomas and Ms. Barton have presented at multiple conferences to fellow educators eager to learn about Mission-Based Grading. Highlights include speaking at the Northwest Association of Independent Schools Fall Educators Conference in 2016 and Hillside Middle School in January 2017, plus a highly successful workshop at the 2018 NAIS Annual Conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Over 100 people attended the one-hour session and reported—through conference surveys—overwhelmingly positive experiences, describing the workshop as "incisive, thorough, and accessible." One attendee wrote: "Outstanding overview of a complex but innovative idea. I will be taking parts of this back to my school to implement."

Between the publication and presentations, Rowland Hall's national profile is on the rise, and Head of School Alan Sparrow is pleased with the attention. However, he continues to focus on how the new grading system benefits Middle School students. "We are incorporating cutting-edge research, which garners a great deal of national publicity since people are interested in the concept and ideas related to grading reform," Mr. Sparrow said. "What I am most proud of is how this grading system helps promote a growth mindset and better learning outcomes for our students. We will fine-tune the program over time, always with the students in mind."

Indeed, the top priority for everyone involved with Mission-Based Grading at Rowland Hall will always be student learning, and Ms. Barton and Mr. Thomas know there is still room for improvement. "We take pride in the adaptive, iterative nature of the work," Mr. Thomas said, "and we're continuously striving to make the program the best it can be."

For now, they are busy sifting through early returns on the impact of Mission-Based Grading at Rowland Hall, and the preliminary data is encouraging. More important than the numbers: Middle School students are building resilience, learning skills, and practicing behaviors that will enable them to succeed no matter where they are—in high school, college, or beyond.

That is what the mission of Mission-Based Grading is all about.

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