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FULL INTERVIEW: Jess Borjon discusses grading policy revisions and new grading guidelines

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On September 28, 2017, Eye of the Tiger sat down with Roseville Joint Union High School District assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction Jess Borjon to discuss his leading efforts in revising the district grading policy and the publication of new grading guidelines for teachers.

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

You guys have had a few meetings after I’ve written my article in April towards the end of the last school year. And you had a meeting last Thursday, a CILT meeting. Can you please remind the viewers, kind of, what you went over?

Jess Borjon:

So where we are in the process for revising current grade policy, is in regards to the policy itself we’re trying to edit it in a manner that really focuses on the learning outcomes of the student. When you are able to look at both the— the current policy and the proposed revision in the near future, you’ll see that there are elements that people would consider subjective and more of the affective domain in terms of how a student behaves or feels, how a teacher behaves or feels, is some of that language is—  is removed from the policy because we’re headed in a direction where we really want the grade and the assessment process to be more about, ‘Did the student arrive at the learning goals of the teacher?’ And they’re— and they’re graded based on that. So that’s the policy and that’s where we’re at. And there’s a little bit of work to do on that still.

In regards to the guidebook, this is a new concept for the district, one that— that previously did not exist. And we borrowed it from Fairfax County Virginia, a very high performing school district on the east coast. And basically what it is it’s a guidebook that’s going to promote conversation— guided conversation between student, teacher, and parent on the— the aspect of grading and how students, how teachers, arrive at grades and students get grades in their classes. And it’s going to create a framework where students and teachers can have a conversation based on best practice, based on research, and it’s still in entirely of the domain of the teacher and teacher decision. But we’re hoping that it guides teachers and it guides students towards a dialogue that reflects more on the learning than— than anything else. And so it’s very vast. I’m trying to think of particular examples that I could give you, but that’s— that’s the basis, I guess, we’ll start there.

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

And so, with that, you have released the first draft of the grading guidelines. You have completed some revisions of the grading policy. What does your timeline look like throughout this school year?

Jess Borjon:

So the hope is that, we are— based on the feedback we got at CILT last Thursday, the writing group, because it’s a smaller group of CILT members, because it’s really hard to write with 28 people contributing. So we whittled that down to about 6 writers from different sites around the district and we’ll get together next week on Wednesday and look at the feedback that we got from CILT and try to incorporate that and or be clearer. You know one of the directives at the dialogue last week was I wanted people to look at each section of the guidebook and focused on clarity and potential controversy or questions because those are the things that are going to have a stumble down the road in terms of implementation and adoption and implementation. If it’s not clear, people are going to go, ‘I don’t know what this means.’ And that’s not going to go well. And or if there’s particular controversy then people will need to talk about that much more before we present it to the board and say, ‘This has been well vetted.’ And I can give you a couple examples of controversy if you’d like.

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

Okay. Yeah sure, why don’t we start there. What are some couple examples of controversy?

Jess Borjon:

Okay. So I anticipate, and this is actually a policy— a recommended policy revision and I really want this to be discussed at all the various sites in the district.

We’re currently giving weighted credit to outside courses around whether it’s an online course or it’s a brick-and-mortar institution. So for example, Sierra College. In some instances, we give weighted credit. We’re looking at amending that policy so that we only give weighted credits to advanced courses taken in our district. So it would be reserved for RJUHSD classes, AP classes, IB classes, honors classes. And the logic behind that is because the online learning has proliferated so greatly that it’s really hard to ascertain whether this really is an advanced course or not. So we have a lot of students that are taking classes from all over the country, literally online versions, and some summer courses, maybe a college extension program when they’re visiting out of state or southern California or something like that. But the district really has no ability to really determine whether that’s an advanced course or not. So we think that it’s creating a— inequitable playing field for students that are amassing grade point averages in their four years here. And it’s very difficult for us, to— as I said determine what schools are valid advanced courses and what aren’t. And whether it’s a brick or mortar institution or it’s an online situation. It’s— it’s— it’s— it’s almost impossible to determine.

So the thinking is, well, if we continue to allow students to do that, which we will, that there’s no intent to take that away. But we just felt like doing the weighted grade aspect of that is something that we could control and say, ‘You know, what if you want to take those classes, good for you, we’ll put it on your transcript, we’re just not going to weight it.’ Because now by just doing internal classes, everyone now is on the same playing field and the district could be very confident about, ‘No, no, no, our IB classes that we teach in our class are very very tight when it comes to rigor across the district. Our IB classes are very tight in terms of the level of rigor that we know is being taught both at Granite Bay for example and Oakmont High School,’ So in that respect, I think there could be some controversy around that because students and obviously this would be phased in for an incoming freshman class so— so current students that wouldn’t affect. But once this policy got into place, it would— it would affect the new incoming freshman class. So you asked about timeline and I didn’t address that, would you like me to do that?

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

Yeah sure, for the grading policy you said it would affect incoming freshman?

Jess Borjon:

So, timeline. What we hope to do is go through this vetting process through this fall term. So we have October, November, and December to continue the communication process with all the sites. And I’m asking principals to make sure that their routing both the guidebook and the policy through their parent, student, teacher leadership groups. And then I hope, and again this might be a little optimistic, but the hope is to present something to the board for adoption in January. And then that way it would— it would give us enough time to implement it into our systems, in our processes and then the incoming fall class of 2018, the new policy and the guidebook would be in effect.

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

And staying on the grading policy, you have completely crossed out any mention of the weighted credit, like you said. So that weighted credit is only awarded to classes taken within the district. In the grading policy, it has also stated under “Factors of Grading,” in part 4, it eliminates any mention of extra credit as well. Is this part of the revisions and what is that— motivation behind it?

Jess Borjon:

Yes. There’s an interesting approach to extra credit that is— that broadly varies and again what— what our intent to do with the policy is to tighten things up. And so by taking the extra credit, what one teacher defines as extra credit may be something different than another teacher defines. And what we’re trying to do is focus on the learning outcomes. So we’re hoping that the way classes are designed in their assessment processes are designed is everything that we do when our class is worthwhile and is going to be assessed in an equivalency kind of a way. So as an example, some students might have a warm-up activity and that may be assessed or it may just be formative feedback for a student. So everyone knows it’s a bell activity and they need to get on it while the teacher is getting set up for the class et cetera. So when I say it’s being assessed, the teacher is doing some kind of follow-up question something of that sort. whether it goes in the grade book or not is completely up to the teacher.

But let me get back to the extra credit specifically. The practice of, ‘Here’s my course, here’s the given work that students have to do to arrive at a— at a certain grade.’ Adding something on top of that for some students versus all students seems inequitable. It seems arbitrary and seems subjective. So one of my opening statements to you is what we’re trying to do in the policy is try to minimize or eliminate that subjectivity and or the ability to create uneven playing fields. So who gets the extra credit?

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

Students.

Jess Borjon:

But which students?

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

It would be students who have the extra incentive.

Jess Borjon:

Okay. So our thinking is, every student should have the extra incentive, every student should have the opportunity. So once you cross that line and you say, ‘Okay, I have 32 students and I’m going to give all 32 an extra credit opportunity.’ Well, doesn’t that become a normal assignment now? As opposed to you have completed your work or there’s some particular instance where the teacher says, ‘Wafeeq, I want to give you extra credit but the rest of the students aren’t going to get extra credit.’ That’s the part that we’re trying to eliminate with that practice.

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

So extra credit, like what you said about before about getting rid of weighted credit opportunities taken outside of the district, so weighted credit is limited to the classes within the district, eliminating extra credit is the same like that. In that you’re trying to level the playing field for students.

Jess Borjon:

Correct. Correct. Well said.  

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

So now, let’s move on to the grading guidelines. Before— kind of transitioning into that, can you clear up for me, kind of, what does enforcement look like behind grading policy and grading guidelines? How is that going to look like?

Jess Borjon:

We are struggling as a— as a CILT deliberation body with that word, ‘enforcement.’ The policy by— by law sides more on the enforcement side of things. And so you’ll see language that’s very specific. And the right of a student and or a parent to refer to that policy to either district site administration or district administration or even the school board would directly stem from that language. As an example, if— if a there was a complaint about a particular class or teacher and how it was assessed, they would be able to cite board policy and point to a particular item, section letter, number and say, ‘This we believe, this is in violation of the policy. We need, again, either site district or board to enforce your own policy.’ So that— that’s kind of takes care of the the policy side. So yes, it would be enforced according to the law because anything that we have in board policy is a— is a legal obligation on the side of the district to uphold.

The guidebook is a different— different animal altogether. The guidebook is intended to be that. It’s a guide. The purpose statement of the first page talks about this tool is to promote conversation and dialogue between parents, students, and teachers based upon best practice. So we felt like by— by coming up with a guidebook, it just was that. If you think of the word ‘guide,’ it’s to guide conversation, it’s to guide practice. It’s not considered to be, what the word we’re using in in our dialogue is ‘hammer.’ The guidebook is not intended to be a hammer against teachers or for parents or or against students. It’s intended to create a forum for conversation about—  As an example one of our— I said I’d give you a couple of examples of controversy.

One of the elements that we have in the guidebook right now is the assignment of zeros to students. Because mathematically, when you look at how a student gets a grade, 90 to 100 is usually an A, 80 to 89 is a B. So it’s 10 percent increments or 10 point increments. Well an F could be 0, but that’s a huge drop from the D, which is 60 percent. So while every increment in that grading scale is a 10 point increment, why, the question that’s mathematically being asked is, ‘Why does a student who gets a D versus an F half go from 60 percent or 62 percent to 0 percent?’ So that’s something that the guidebook is touching on and asking teachers to really examine that practice because you could be putting a student at a disadvantage that might have done poorly on— on an assessment or an assignment here and there.

But that’s something that again I think teachers might look at it and go, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, is this telling me I can’t give 0’s?’ And the answer is no. The answer is no, sit down look at— talk to your students, to your parents, talk to your colleagues within your department and have that conversation and consideration. We’re going to, in the appendix of the guidebook, we’re going to list quite a number of resources and research documents that people can go to to further that conversation and say, ‘Well look at MIT. There was a study that was done on the application of zeros in the gradebook.’ And— and I’m using MIT just as an example. But that’s what I’m talking about in terms of the kind of research that we’re going to look forward to promote the kind of conversation that we want to happen.

So I’ll summarize it one more time. The policy is going to be more of an enforcement tool because that’s how all our policies are in board policy. We’re expected to uphold our policy. The guidebook is intended to be that, it’s to guide the conversation and the dialogue and steer the system, the processes, towards best practice. Over time, as people adopt and consider more and more of what’s in the guidebook, our journey is going to be to a better assessment process.

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

So the way that the guidebook is going to processed is not going to be the same as policy. Where it’s going to be seeking board approval and then going for enforcement the following school year. Am I correct? It’s a guidebook. So it’s something you would share with teachers at like professional development days or something?

Jess Borjon:

Correct, correct. So— and we’d have it available on links at sites in our district website under resources for parents to look at, correct.

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

And so, is the guidebook— in order to keep up with grading practices, because of course, things change, technology changes, dynamics change, is the guidebook going to be something you guys update and look back every single year or how is that going to work?

Jess Borjon:

Well I think, yes. The answer is yes, that we would look at it periodically to make sure that we are implementing best practice. And quite frankly, our board policies undergo the same kind of updating. There was a time period where that waned a bit in our district. But recently, I’d say in the last four to five years, that the district subscribes to a legal service that we look at quarterly to update all our board policies. So the guidebook would definitely go through a level of review and part of that would probably be site-based. Meaning, a particular grading issue came about at school A— it wasn’t addressed in the guidebook or it wasn’t addressed clearly in the guidebook. That would be something that we would take on and go, ‘Whoa, you know we didn’t foresee that coming or— or that practice is new let’s look at that.’

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

And so, you guys will look periodically back at the guidebook to make sure it’s up to date. Okay, that’s— that’s perfect. Is there anything else you want to say to address the differences between guidebook and policy? Or anything you want to add in general?

Jess Borjon:

I think if— if people that contribute to the process, to the dialogue process, both for board policy and the guidebook, the ultimate outcome is from the very beginning, has been, ‘How can we set up a classroom environment and an assessment process where we’re promoting and supporting learning?’ That’s— that’s really the ultimate goal. And I think what we’ve discovered in the last 10,15 years, especially when it comes to assessment practice, is we can do some things that really results in— in being able to look at a student and say, ‘Here’s what a B+ means. Here’s what a C means,’ in relationship to learning. Think of any class that you’ve been in and you can put the name to it: biology, algebra, U.S. history and you left feeling like, ‘I don’t know if that B+ really tells how much I learned because there might have been elements: extra credit, attendance, participation, attitude, you know some of the more subjective things that sometimes creep into grading, that maybe that B+ could have been an A because if it was based just on learning, those other elements that brought that A to a B+ might of— might of had an influence. So that’s the goal of our work, is to really ensure that grades that are assigned in our district really reflect the level of learning in our classes.

Wafeeq Ridhuan:

And this grading guidelines, is it first draft? Is there going to be a final draft? Or is this it?

Jess Borjon:

No, we are in our second draft. After our writing group gets ahold of it next week, we hope to present a third draft at CILT. At our October CILT meeting would be the third draft. And hopefully, based on that process, the fourth draft would be November. Which at some point, and again I said this earlier, we have to recognize that we can continue to edit. Whether some people call it wordsmithing, what we need to get to is this saying what we want it to say and then— and then implement it and go from there. And so I’m hoping that November we’re done.

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