Sadia Parr doesn't have to do her homework anymore.

The eighth-grader at St. Paul's Hazel Park Middle School Academy does it anyway, she says, because "it's practice." But when it comes to getting good grades, homework doesn't matter.

In an effort to improve the school's test scores, Hazel Park has made a change that some assert is a new trend in student assessment. Rather than hand out traditional letter grades based on homework, tests, extra-credit and participation, the school grades students solely on how well they understand the material.

It's called "standards-based grading," and it measures whether kids understand Minnesota's education standards, the foundation for Minnesota's state tests.

"There are a lot of kids who don't know how to play the game of school, but they're proficient," said Kelly Detzler, a geography teacher who helped set up the program. "We were seeing a high rate of kids failing because they didn't do their homework, even though they understood the material."

Not all the parents are convinced.

"I just think schooling should be more than straight testing," said parent Tara Franco, whose son Mario is in eighth grade. "Hopefully the kids don't get shocked when they get into high school and have so much more expected of them."

Changes the focus

The state tests required under the federal No Child Left Behind law address how well students understand each state's education standards.

Hazel Park hasn't done well on Minnesota's tests in recent years: In 2008, less than half the students in seventh and eighth grade were proficient on the state math and reading tests.

The Hazel Park system tells students at the beginning of a unit what they will have to prove they know by the end. A "4" means they exceed proficiency; zero means they can't demonstrate any understanding of the skills.

That proof can come in the form of tests, or other in-class projects such as writing newspaper articles or making posters.

In the end, the school hopes students' zero through 4 ratings will more faithfully predict how well students do on state tests.

"If it puts the focus on what kids ought to be learning and what kids learn, then it's probably a good thing," said Joan Herman, director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing.

She said that in a nationwide movement about state standards, grading based on the standards is the next logical step.

The way a school grades tells kids what is important to learn. Having the grades reflect what the state wants students to know makes sense, she said.

In Edina, elementary schools have been using a similar grading scheme since the 2006-07 school year.

"We just want to have an accurate indication of where students are in the learning process," said Jenni Norlin-Weaver director of teaching and learning for the district. "I'd love to get away from the idea of a report card. I'd love to think about a continuous process in which parents, students and teachers have a great sense of how the student is progressing."

Before, the problem was that the district's six elementary schools all had different grading systems, she said.

"You can always ask, what does the A, B, C, D system mean anyway, since different teachers always assign different values to those systems."

St. Paul's Ramsey Junior High is also considering moving to a system like Hazel Park's, said Principal Bruce Maeda.

The letter-grade system has been in place at Ramsey "for a long time," Maeda said. But research has shown that "the way we assess students isn't necessarily accurate anymore."

One thing that gives him pause is getting parents to agree.

"How do we change a system that's so ingrained? Parents are used to, 'My kid got an A. This is what that means, or what we think it means. He must be doing fine.'"

Grades more balanced

Under the new system, Hazel Park has seen fewer students get the best grades, and fewer get the worst.

Students who know how to "game the system" by faithfully turning in homework and extra credit, even though they don't understand the material, are having a harder time. Students who don't turn in homework, but know how to do the work, are having an easier time, Detzler said.

The school has also tracked whether the amount of students doing homework has dropped. It hasn't, she said.

As to whether it will make a difference in student achievement, it's too early to tell because students haven't taken the state tests yet.

In Edina, Norlin-Weaver said the achievement of low-income students has increased under the new grading system, but the district doesn't know if the grading system alone is responsible.

Using standards-based grading at a high school, Norlin-Weaver said, would be more complicated to pull off because of the importance put on GPAs, especially in regard to college admission.

At Hazel Park, if a student gets a 2 or less on a test or project, they can work with the teacher to see where they went wrong, and take the test again until it's clear they understand the material.

"It helps me," said eighth-grader Estefani Huerta, "because then I can find out what I need to work on. You get to practice, and then do it over."

Emily Johns • 612-673-7460