Skip to content
Aurora Institute

Casco Bay High School: The What and HOW of Learning

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Chris Sturgis

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Create Balanced Systems of Assessments, Learn Lessons from the Field

From the Casco Bay HS Website
From the Casco Bay HS Website

This post is part of the series Road Trip to Maine. This is the third of a four-part look at Casco Bay High School. Read Tips and Takeaways (Part 1), Learning as Exploration (Part 2), The What and HOW of Learning, and We Will Shape our School by our Learning (Part 4). 

Casco Bay High School in Portland has developed a strong standards-based grading system built upon several principles (below). It seems to me that it would be a good exercise for any and all schools to be able to identify the principles that drive their grading, reporting, and extra support/extra time policies. Can you imagine trying to do that for A-F, time-based systems?

Principle: Grades should clearly communicate what students know and are able to do in each class.

Practice: We report on student mastery of specific skills and concepts within a course (called “course standards”); traits like participation and effort are reported on separately.

Principle: Students should have multiple opportunities to show what they know and can do.

Practice: We ask students to build a body of work to demonstrate their mastery of each course standard.

Principle: Schools should support students in acquiring all of the essential knowledge and skills in a course versus just a portion of it.

Practice: To earn credit, all of the course standards must be met.

Principle: Academic knowledge and work habits are both important to acquire for college and life.

Practice: Students receive both academic grades (based on course standards) as well as habits of work (HOW) grades for each class.

Principle: If students are working hard (as shown by their HOW grade) to meet standards, they deserve more time and support to learn the material.

Practice: Students receive additional time after the term has ended to meet course standards if they have a “3” or above in Habits of Work.

Principle: All students should have the opportunity to excel.

Practice: Achieving “with Honors” is an option for all students in all courses.

Principle: Regular communication with families about student progress supports deeper learning.

Practice: We formally report progress ten times a year through report cards, progress reports, and conferences. Infinite Campus, our online grade book, is updated frequently by teachers and is always open to parents.

Principle: Learning cannot be averaged: students need time to practice and learn from mistakes.

Practice: We determine trimester grades based on trends, and take more recent performance into account. Trimester grades reflect a student’s current level of achievement.

Please note: The system of supports is vital to implementing standards-based grading. Please see the post on Casco Bay High School’s support system.

The What and HOW of Learning

A student used learning to ride a bicycle as a metaphor for standards-based grading, “When you first learn to ride a bike, you are going to fall off. But then you get better and better. Everyone has that hard time in the beginning. It’s about bettering yourself.”

One of the most unique things about Casco is that they separate out the HOW. (See a video on HOW.) As one staff person explained, “The standard grade is what you know. The HOW grade is your work ethic.” A staff member reinforced this by stating that the dual grading system lets you know where students are in their learning and development, “I’ve never seen a kid get a 4 (skills and knowledge) and a 1 (did nothing). If that happens, then you know they shouldn’t be in the course. If they have a 3 and a 2, this would start a conversation with kids and parents. You aren’t really doing the work but doing okay. What about lifting your sights to exceed?”

An aside: This got me to thinking – is the HOW the replacement for the GPA? What is the GPA anyway? It doesn’t say anything about what you’ve learned, as it doesn’t tell you the level of the course, the rigor of the course, or anything about what you really know. It does tell you that a student knows how to navigate the traditional system well.

The scoring system at Casco is simple – a 2 is approaches proficiency, a 3 is meets the level of proficiency, and 3.25 to 4 is exceeds. As one teacher explained it, “A 1 means you didn’t turn it in, 2 means you need to revise, 3 is you’ve reached proficiency, and above that you are stretching yourself to excel.” (See this video and the Casco Bay guide for families on their standards-based grading model. You might also check out Expeditionary Learning video series on standards-based grading.)

Several staff remarked that it is unfair to let a student fail if he/she is working really hard but still isn’t mastering the material. Another teacher explained, “We don’t say one and done. Kids get at least three attempts to meet a standard. If you get a 3 in HOW, you will never flunk a class. It indicates that you just need more time.

Thus, students with a 3 in the Big 3 (homework, attendance, and meeting deadlines) can have more time and support to learn. When asked if they can fail at Casco Bay, a student explained, “We have second chances and we also have to take responsibility. We can revise if we have a good HOW grade.” Some of this extra time is built into the calendar year through programs like as Mud School in March and Summer School.

HOW is equally important for honor students. To be in the National Honor Society, students have to be on HOW honor roll and regular (academic) honor roll.

What Does Exceed Really Mean?

At most schools I visit, 3 equals proficient and then there is a 4, but it’s rarely clear what a 4 really means. Sometimes it is extra work. Sometimes it is demonstration of “knowledge utilization” – using the skills in a very new context or problem. Sometimes it is just a higher level standard (which causes lots of confusion).

Casco has taken the time to develop a clear strategy about exceeds. In their grading guides, they explain that “Exceeds work is one of the important tools of differentiation to make sure that every student is challenged and learning.” For major assessments, the end product or performance should be high quality, polished work. In addition, rubric language for exceeds might include words like “sophisticated; highly developed; original analysis, inquiry research or application; complex; personal connection; richly detailed; or diverse evidence.”

Students at Casco have the opportunity to complete work that exceeds the standards in each course, each trimester, but not necessarily for every assignment or standard. Any student should be able to do exceeds work, including those who might have been bumping along and suddenly “catch fire.”

The Transition to Standards-Based Grading

Leslie Applebaum, English and Literacy Coach, explained that when they made the shift to standards-based grading (SBG), there weren’t any other schools using the technique. (Standards-based grading is about designing so that all students become proficient. Standards-referenced grading is scoring students on standards but still passing them on even if they don’t learn.) She explained that Principal Derek Pierce used the Cookie exercise to help parents understand the value of SBG. (Information on the cookie exercise at the bottom of the post.) By the end, parents understand that standards-based grading is designed in the best interest of their students. Parents understand that there is no D and that their child can’t slip through class anymore. Once the first class using SBG entered college, parents became much more comfortable, of course.

A teacher explained that it took some time to get comfortable with standards-based grading. By mid-year the first year, it opened up conversations with students and things got easier. By the end of the first year, she felt sure of herself. As another teacher explained, “Once you get away from the grading game, things start to make sense. The focus shifts to the standards and the evidence of learning.”

Casco found that preparing a faculty guide for standards-based grading was a very important step. It is important to have consistency in a standards-based system and documenting the grading practices “nails it down.”

Cookie Exercise

Step 1: Take two to three different kinds of cookies and ask people to grade them. It’s hard to give a better grade to a Chips Ahoy instead of the Oreo or between a ginger snap and a sugar cookie. Parents realized that grades have limits and that it is more helpful to describe them.

Step 2: Then bring out another three cookies. Perhaps one is still dough, one might be store bought, and one from the best bakery in town. The dough is someone who isn’t quite proficient yet, the storebought is proficient, and the nummy one from the bakery captures the concept of exceeds. Be sure to make the point – if you know what an excellent piece of writing looks like (or a delicious cookie tastes like) it helps to get kids there.

See also: