A Raleigh middle school is dropping traditional A-F grades for students. Here’s why.

Students Jakari Garner, right, and Nate Guenzler during their science class at Carroll Middle School in 2016.
Students Jakari Garner, right, and Nate Guenzler during their science class at Carroll Middle School in 2016. cliddy@newsobserver.com

A Raleigh middle school is dropping the A through F grading system as part of a test that could lead to changes in how other Wake County students are graded on their work.

Leaders at Carroll Middle School, a magnet school near North Hills in Raleigh, say the A-F grading system doesn’t provide enough information about how students are doing and also can discourage students who have low marks. Instead of traditional grades, teachers will check off whether students are “progressing,” “meeting” or “exceeding” in applying different skills they’re expected to master in each subject.

“For a child who gets a D or an F, ‘ugh, all hope is gone. I’m not ever going to be able to make the growth necessary,’” Elizabeth MacWilliams, Carroll’s principal, told school board members in June. “By providing specific feedback, again the focus has shifted to learning.”

The pilot program at Carroll is being embraced by Wake County school leaders who say parents will appreciate the new format.

But they acknowledge that it will be confusing at first.

“Parents are not going to understand it — no matter how much community engagement you’ve done and how many people you have involved — when they see something that’s a P, an M and an E instead of A, B, C, D, F or 91s and 71s,” Wake Superintendent Cathy Moore told school board members. “But when they see that P, M or E, they’re going to get a great deal more information than what they were getting when they saw A, B, C, D, F or 91 or 71.”

Wake moved away from A-F grading in elementary schools in 2004, switching to a system where report cards are based on grades of Level 1 to Level 4.

When Wake students move to middle school, they get report cards with a numerical grade for each subject. The numerical grades are based on a 10-point scale where, for instance, an A is 90 to 100 and a B is 80 to 89.

But MacWilliams says the current system doesn’t effectively communicate what students are able to do with what they are expected to know.

Carroll is joining a growing number of schools around the nation that are switching to “competency-based” grading systems.

In each subject, teachers will evaluate students on five to seven different competencies instead of the one score they get now for each class. For instance, sixth-grade math students could be evaluated on their ability to:

Use ratio concepts and reasoning to solve problems.

Divide fractions by fractions and compute fluently with multi-digit numbers.

Order rational numbers and apply to real-world contexts.

Reason about and solve one-variable equations and inequalities.

Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, surface area and volume.

Recognize, summarize and describe statistical variability and data distributions.

“When we’re talking about teachers and parents and students better understanding what’s expected and how to get there, I don’t know that we could go wrong,” MacWilliams said.

The new system has been discussed with students, parents and staff since last year in preparation for use for the upcoming school year.

Feedback has varied, with one person warning that “this will be difficult for some competitive people to understand.” Another person said that they supported the change because their daughter is “way too focused on achieving perfect grades” and the new system will help her “gain an understanding of her true educational goals.”

Morgan Blue, whose son will be a seventh-grader this fall at Carroll, supports the switch. She said it will be an improvement because she didn’t know under the traditional report card what her son was expected to learn.

“The way they’re setting this up, I will learn more,” Blue said in an interview. “I don’t get the details out of him.”

Blue and her husband mentor Carroll students who need extra academic help. She said the new grading system will particularly help students whose challenging home environments make it harder for them to do well at school.

“I think school is going to feel better,” Blue said. “The score that gets dangled in front of them that they’ll never be able to reach will be gone.”

School boards are required to approve any changes for elementary and middle schools to drop the A-F grading system. Schools can’t drop it in high school though due to state law.

“When we look at our strategic plan and our instructional blueprint and where we want kids to go, this is much better aligned with it,” Moore said. “But there’s risk-reward in it.”

The school board unanimously approved the change at Carroll on July 10.

“It is a risk,” said school board chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler. “But we should be taking it for our students.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui