Des Moines Public Schools Gifted Middle Schoolers are being treated like guinea pigs in their experiment with standards based grading.
Photo credit: Des Moines Public Schools (Public Domain)/Critter Camp at Windsor Elementary

Mary Stegmier at the Des Moines Register reported Wednesday that the Des Moines Public Schools will drop most middle-school advanced classes in order to accommodate standards-based grading  to be introduced in the district this fall.

Instead students, Stegmier writes, “will have the option to complete honors-level assignments in all subjects within general education classrooms.”

On the surface that sounds good, but parents have their doubts.

“In theory, you can tailor (instruction), but when you have such a diverse learning population, as a teacher, I think you would be naturally inclined to help the ones that are struggling more than advancing the students that can move through the information more quickly,” said Natasha Newcomb, whose son took accelerated classes last year at Harding Middle School.

One also has to wonder what the motivation for this shift is.

The decision to scrap advanced stand-alone courses in the middle schools represents a shift in philosophy, said Noelle Tichy, director of teaching and learning for secondary schools.

“Instead of having an advanced course that’s only open to 25 students, we’re saying that we want every kid — all 600 (students in a middle school building) — to have an opportunity to access advanced coursework,” Tichy said. “They may not all get there, but they should at least all have the opportunity.”

…Curriculum and academic expectations varied among schools, officials said. Yet across the board, minority and poor students were under-represented, officials said.

“This is an equity issue for us,” Tichy said.

Equity?  This is what Des Moines is basing its education policy decisions on?  I can certainly see the benefit this could have on your average student having more advanced peers in the classroom.  However advanced students need to be sharpened by similar peers and be in challenging environments.

I put little stock into educational fads like standards-based education.  Advanced and gifted students who suffer will unfortunately be stuck dealing with this unless their families are poor enough meeting the criteria for open enrollment out of the district, can make the sacrifices needed to homeschool, or can pay for private school tuition.  Even advocates of the Common Core admit that gifted students will need more, and I frankly doubt that will happen in a general classroom.  Education Week quoted Jared Dupree who is the secondary mathematics coordinator eastern region of the Los Angeles Unified School District, “I don’t see … a strong outlook for quality differentiation for the gifted population for years … maybe three or four years down the road.”

That doesn’t exactly inspire confidence that this experiment will work.

Ankeny got off to a rocky start with standards-based grading (they along with Waukee still offer advanced classes).

Stegmier reports in another article:

a survey of Ankeny high school teachers showed disagreement about the grading method’s effectiveness. Some parents said it encouraged poor study habits in their children because they were allowed to retake tests, and homework was not graded.

This is becoming a national trend because Common Core’s implementation in over 40 states.  Iowa adopted the standards developed by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers in 2010.  The Common Core replaces Iowa’s previous math and literacy standards.

Standards-based grading requires students to meet these specific standards.  Homework and classroom participation, items that used were factored into grading, are now excluded.

How will it be determined if a student knows the material?  Testing and assessments.

So this already puts kids who struggle with tests at a disadvantage.

Common standards, standards-based grading, eliminating advanced classes, this is leading to a focus on the middle.  Which is exactly what Common Core opponents predicted would happen as these standards are implemented in school districts across the country.  First you see a race to middle with the states as national standards will naturally lead, and then you see a race to the middle within schools as these standards take root there.

Advocates for the standards like to point out that these are just benchmarks, but we can clearly see how they are shifting pedagogy and even classroom management.

Parents will respond, just like they did in Ankeny.

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, who served on the validation committee for the Common Core English language arts standards, told Caffeinated Thoughts in an email tonight, “(Bill) Gates and (Arne) Duncan and their friends don’t seem to understand, yet, why opposition to Common Core continues to grow and will continue to grow no matter how much money Gates throws in to counter parents with different views about the kind of education their public schools should offer.  This is exactly the kind of ‘news’ that middle-class parents understand.  After all, Gates’s children go to an expensive private school that doesn’t use a Common Core-based curriculum or ‘standards’-based grading.”

Meanwhile students in Des Moines Public Schools, in particular, middle schoolers are guinea pigs in the district’s race to the middle.

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  1. For fairness of disclosure, if Stotsky is going to talk about Bill Gates’ kids and their private school, maybe she should mention her department ( is funded by the Walton Family Foundation. Where do their kids go to school?

    1. I didn’t realize that Stotsky was dictating ed policy to us.

      Also while the Walton’s may provide some funding it is a state institution. Also Stotsky is retired.

  2. The common core is being supported by the Governor and legislature. It will cost Iowans both in their children’s quality of education and financially as the federal government dictates the standards which the state has given up by signing onto the ‘core’. The common core indoctrinates our children with liberal/marxist ideology and it will dumb down this generation from the once high standards I enjoyed in school. Shame on Brandstad.

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