Kansas City updates grade levels

Some school districts are returning to an old idea, AP reports. They’re grouping students by performance rather than age. The boldest experiment will start in Kansas City, Missouri schools this fall when 17,000 students will switch to the new system.

Students — often of varying ages — work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it’s needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems because advanced students aren’t bored and struggling students aren’t frustrated.

Kansas City’s traditional public schools have seen enrollment fall by half as students move to suburbs or enroll in charter or private schools; 40 percent of schools are closing.  The district spent $2 billion in state desegregation case funds without raising test scores. Kansas City is desperate. Superintendent John Covington will start the new system in elementary schools.

“This system precludes us from labeling children failures,” Covington said. “It’s not that you’ve failed, it’s just that at this point you haven’t mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level.”

In a Marzano Research Laboratory study of 15 school districts in Alaska, Colorado and Florida, “researchers found that students who learned through the different approach were 2.5 times more likely to score at a level that shows they have a good grasp of the material on exams for reading, writing, and mathematics.”

Greg Johnson, director of curriculum and instruction for the Bering Strait School District in Alaska, recalled that before the switch there were students who had been on honor roll throughout high school then failed a test the state requires for graduation.

Now, he said if students are on pace to pass a class like Algebra I, the likelihood of them passing the state exam covering that material is more than 90 percent.

Teachers love the new approach, Johnson says.