FALLS CITY -- Falls City High School students will have practice work rather than homework during the upcoming school year.
It's a simple change in terms, but teachers say the switch is indicative of a fundamental shift in assessing student knowledge.
Rather than using a system in which students earn their grades based on the percentage of points they capture on assignments, term papers and tests in a class, Falls City students must demonstrate they really understand what has been taught.
"Those are huge changes," Falls City High School Principal Sid Hobgood said.
The format, called proficiency-based assessment, throws out much of the traditional grading system. Instead of semesters, the school year will be divided into trimesters. Students won't have to turn in homework or practice work for credit. Take-home exercises are optional, only needed for "practice" on the way to showing mastery of a subject. Kids will no longer be given failing grades, but an incomplete until all standards are passed in a class.
"It changes the emphasis," science teacher Mike Rodriguez said. "It's not what we are teaching, but what they are learning."
Rodriguez was one half of a pair of teachers who set the transition in motion. In February, the district sent him and language arts teacher Lynn Bailey to a workshop sponsored by the Business Education Compact, a nonprofit organization developing partnerships between businesses and industries to provide hands-on learning to student through internships. The workshop presented the proficiency model as a way to enhance education for high-achieving students.
The pair said they saw benefits for all students in the program, being piloted at schools in Redmond and Scappoose. They presented the format to Hobgood, who encouraged the change and sent the teachers to more seminars. The Falls City School Board gave the final nod for the switch in June.
"It's been a grass-roots movement," Bailey said. "We hope it trickles down to the middle school and elementary school level."
Teachers say a point-based system at times favors behavior over learning. Students who turn in homework and complete projects on time yet don't perform well on tests often earn better grades than those who pass on assignments, but understand enough to perform well on tests.
That system doesn't make sense to the teachers at Falls City.
Proving dedication and work ethic, while important, is not necessarily part of understanding. Career-related learning standards, such as organization and dependability, will be evaluated. But Falls City educators say being able to earn a grade simply based on being a hard worker doesn't serve those students well.
Bailey said she has heard complaints from colleges that find incoming students with high grade-point averages have to take remedial classes. Shifting the focus from earning points and turning in homework to demonstrating understanding will better prepare students for college, Bailey said.
This year juniors and seniors earn an A grade only if they prove they are ready for college-level work.
"I think it's really just a fairer system," Rodriguez said.
Bailey admits the new format will put much more responsibility in the hands of students to make sure they can show true learning. On the other hand, they will know ahead of time what they need to learn to meet standards and can shift their focus.
"It just makes sense for kids in general," Bailey said.