The school year has started at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C. There, students are giving presentations on their work to their classmates.
"We are looking for audience members that are paying close attention and forming higher-order questions," a teacher tells her students.
The presenter, first-year Genesis Benavides, asks her fellow students: "How do social and cultural expectations influence our own personality? Personal identity?"
Feedback from peers is part of how students work is evaluated.
A student raises his hand to ask Genesis about her work. "When you were writing your poems, did you feel like you related to it?" he asks. "Yes, I related to the main character, "she answers.
Students take tests and write papers at Bell, which is part of Columbia Heights Educational Campus. But presentations are another way Bell students show what they've learned.
"If a kid shows up and says something out loud, that's value. If a student talks with another student about the objective of the day, that's value," says Robert Athmer, special education instructor at Bell.
This interaction is part of a new wave of assessment and grading policies that many U.S. schools are adopting.
Recently, the Los Angeles and San Diego school districts, with nearly 700,000 students between them, removed behavior from the factors teachers use to calculate grades.
And the Philadelphia and Fairfax County, Virginia, school districts are among many that have adopted no-zero policies that set 50% as the lowest score a student can get, even for a missed assignment.
"It shouldn't matter when students turn in an assignment. If they've got the knowledge, they've got the knowledge," said Kevin Hickerson, president-elect of the Fairfax Education Association, in 2016.
Hundreds of high schools have adopted an approach called mastery. The idea is that students are given repeated opportunities to learn information until they show they've learned it.
"We put kids in classes, and we all have them learn math. And after a week or two, we move on to the next unit, and we move on, regardless of whether every student in the class has mastered the content," says Mike Flanagan, CEO of the Mastery Transcript Consortium. Mastery learning, he says, is aimed at requiring students "to actually really nail the content before they move on."
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Traditionally, the time between tests in school, known as seat time, is fixed, and then the class learns new material. So some students learn more than others.
The mastery approach aims to make all students learn the same amount, with the amount of time needed varying between students.
"The swim test isn't a swim race," says Flanagan. "We're not sort of having all kids jump into the lake and see who gets across the pond first. We want to enable all kids how to teach them how to swim."
"Whether it's literacy, whether it's math, whether it's the fundamentals of science, you shouldn't be allowed to graduate if you've only got a C-minus or like a 70% understanding of the material," says Flanagan. "If they need anything specific before going to the next step, we stay in that step until they achieve them, until they master all the standards. They can't go to the next step if they don't know 100% [of] every step."
The move away from traditional assessments appeals to Genesis Benavides at Bell. "I really like the way grades are handled in the school because it's not only about completing an assessment or taking a test."
Report cards at Bell include numerical and letter grades.
But dozens of U.S. high schools have adopted a new kind of transcript that describes student work, skills, and accomplishments without numerical or letter-based grades.
Harvard, MIT, and Cal Tech are among the three hundred and seventeen universities that have accepted these transcripts for college applications.
While each school has its own policy. The Mastery Transcript Consortium is piloting what they call a learning record, a document that skips listing courses and credits but shows progress toward mastery of skills.
All fifty states now allow schools in some way to use mastery instead of grades to graduate.
But alternative grading policies have drawn controversy nationwide, including in St. Lucie County, Florida, in 2018, when the district changed grading policy to make the lowest possible grade 50%.
In 2017, Diane Tirado was fired during her probationary period. The district said it was because of poor performance.
Tirado instead says it was her refusal to give a fifty instead of a zero for work that wasn't handed in. Well, what if they don't turn anything in? We give them a fifty. I go; no, we don't," she said. "We have a nation of kids that are expecting to get paid and live their lives just for showing up, and it's not real."
Some parents agree with the sentiment. "You don't know what's going on at home, and it's what you see is front-level, cause if my son blatantly chooses not to do it, he knows he's got an issue," said one St. Lucie father.
It's a debate that's only going to intensify for students, teachers, and parents as the new school year unfolds.
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