by‌ ‌Alyssa‌ ‌Cocchiola,‌ ‌associate‌ ‌editor‌ ‌ ‌

 MARCH 2022‌ ‌—‌ After Bio-Med Science Academy began using Otus — a new learning management system (LMS) — this school year, many students have expressed confusion about how their grades are calculated. Otus uses a standard-based grading system, where projects are broken down into several learning objectives (LOs), to assess students. These LOs are then graded individually based on a decaying average system, where more emphasis is placed on a student’s more recent attempts compared to the previous ones.

“I don’t know how [the grading calculation] works, so I just know when my grade goes down that it goes down, and I’m like, ‘what’s going on?’” admitted Erika Bentley, a junior at Bio-Med.

Pictured above is an image depicting what a student’s gradebook looks like on Otus. The total grade is displayed on the top, while the overall grades for the LOs are displayed at the bottom. Photo provided by the Otus control center.

A student’s total grade in a class is calculated by averaging out all of the grades for each learning outcome. For Bio-Med, these grades will be one of the following, from highest to lowest: exceeds mastery, mastery, developing mastery, not yet mastered, or no evidence of mastery.

“The total grade is calculated using average regardless of which mastery setting is being used in the gradebook,” explained Brooke Fodor, an Otus administrator, on the Otus control center.

As for the learning outcomes themselves, this is calculated by a decaying average system. In an LO, the grade of the most recent assignment accounts for 65 percent of the entire grade. All of the previous attempts combined only account for 35 percent of the grade.

For example, if a student completes three projects that each include the LO of “professionalism,” and the student receives an exceeds mastery on the first two attempts and a mastery on the most recent attempt, the final grade for “professionalism” would be a mastery, as the most recent grade would account for 65 percent of the overall one.

The “professionalism” learning outcome, which was calculated as a mastery overall, would then be averaged out with the overall grade for all the other LOs. Decaying average would only be used for the individual LOs and not for the final grade calculation for that course.

The “most recent grade” is determined by the grade with the most recent due date; the order in which the assignments are graded does not impact this. The only time where the date submitted and date graded make a difference is if the grade does not have a due date. In that case, the assignment that is graded the most recently accounts for the 65 percent.

Bio-Med first began to use the decaying average system during the 2016-17 school year with the use of Canvas, the school’s previous learning management system (LMS). This year, when switching to Otus, the same grading system was kept.

Pictured above is a grade calculation for an individual learning outcome. With Otus, schools can select how their students are assessed through mastery settings. They can choose from mean, mode, most recent, highest, and decaying average. Photo provided by Otus help center.

Christopher Hull, the co-founder and chief product officer of Otus, and Monica Burke, the senior client success specialist at Otus, elaborated on how the decaying average system worked.

“Decaying average is a type of mastery level calculation for standard-based grading that puts more weight on the most recent score. The decaying average formula recognizes that the most recent score is more representative of the student’s current mastery level and thus puts more weight on that score (as opposed to a straight average that counts the student’s first work and most recent work as equally important). On the other hand, it also recognizes that past work might be relevant; it is still part of the whole picture (as opposed to the Most Recent formula which only counts the most recent score),” they wrote in a statement to the Hive.

When adding decaying average as an option, the Otus team worked together with several standard-based grading thought leaders and school districts to seek out the most commonly desired filters.

Hull and Burke noted, “Otus did not, nor did I, create the Decaying Average method. Decaying Average is a common method for educators to calculate a student’s performance on a specific skill over time.”

As defined by MasteryConnect, the decay rate for the formula for decaying average must fall between 50 to 100 percent. This way, the most recent grade accounts for at least over 50 percent of the entire grade. In most instances, the default number mastery settings offer is 65 percent.

Pictured above is a graphic that showcases how different mastery settings would calculate a student’s final grade in a learning objective. Each attempt is correlated with a number, with one being the lowest and four being the highest. The Otus website provides more insight on how the mastery grades are calculated and converted to traditional letter grades. Photo provided by the Otus website.

Hull and Burke explained that for Otus, they used the most common formula numbers, which were 65 and 35 percent. However, they noted that on their roadmap, which is “full of possible ideas we consider building,” is an item that allows for custom values to be entered for this calculation.

For Bio-Med’s purposes, the decaying average was selected due to its compatibility with the mastery system, which emphasizes the application of content and student’s growth as opposed to memorization. Mrs. Stephanie Lammlein, the Chief Administrative Officer at Bio-Med, discussed the reasoning behind using this mastery setting to calculate students’ grades.

“What I really like is the [grading calculation] that looks at the last thing — the very last thing you ever do, and that is that solid point — but that doesn’t show the whole story of your mastery grade progression. Years ago, when we were having this conversation as a staff, decaying average shows us the picture of your learning journey, but it allows you room for failure,” she said.

Lammlein noted that if Bio-Med used a more traditional grading system, mistakes that students made at the beginning of the year would hold the same weight as their recent assignments where those mistakes were corrected.

“That really holds down any hard work you do in the forward, and that’s not what mastery is about,” she explained. “Mastery is about allowing kids room for failure at the front so that they learn and grow. Decaying average makes those ‘areas’ that you might have struggled less heavy. It still shows that you were on this journey, so it still captures some of that, but it doesn’t hold it so tightly that you will never ever be able to show and demonstrate what you really know in that whole picture.”

Above is a graphic provided by Hull and Burke to better explain how standard-based grading is implemented through Otus. Bio-Med uses this system to assess knowledge on LOs as opposed to an overall grade. Hull and Burke explained the benefits of using the decaying average system for a mastery school. “Assessments are the measurement of learning, and because everyone is on a learning journey that is unique and not linear, I think it is important to take time to carefully consider how you want to calculate growth. I believe there is value to a wide range of strategies but consistency and open communication is key. For example, comparing the metric system to the imperial system of measurement could be a useful analogy. One can be successful with either system, but it is easiest when you are able to know the process and why. The graphic [above] shows the value in displaying the performance of a car, but the analogy to student learning is apt,” they wrote. Photo provided by Christopher Hull and Monica Burke.

Burke and Hull further elaborated on this: “Think of it this way; when trying out for a sports team, — for example, the basketball team — you practice for months before the tryouts to make sure you are at your best. Come tryout day, your coach considers your skill level from months ago to be just as important as your skill level during tryouts. That does not seem the most fair, right?”

They continued, “Would it not make more sense for the coach to value your current skill level more than your skill level from a few months ago? That is an example of how decaying average works. This method of calculation truly benefits the student, in that the current level of performance is more important than what was done in the past.”

Bio-Med students, however, had varying opinions on whether they found this way of grading beneficial.

Keira Vasbinder, a junior at Bio-Med, added, “The whole general idea before was ‘oh, if you set your grades up so that they’re good at the beginning of the year, you don’t have to worry as much towards the end of the year, because it’s not going to go down that much,’ but I feel like this just completely disregards that, and it’s just throwing it out the window, and you have to worry about your grade consistently all year.”

Many of these opinions have sparked since the switch to Otus. Though Canvas and Otus both used this system of grading, the way of displaying those calculations differed. As a result, some Bio-Med students did not know that decaying average was even used by the school until this year.

Freshman Caroline Brunn argued, “It seems to be more of a difference. I never even noticed it on Canvas.”

Some students attribute this “difference” to the lack of percentages on the new LMS. When switching to Otus, Bio-Med opted to remove percentages from students’ grades. Instead, students are assigned a mastery level with no percentages attached.

“Using percentages is certainly beneficial,” Brunn believed. “Say you have a developing mastery. I don’t know exactly what grade that is, but you would want to know if you are at like a 70 or a 60 [percent]. That could be a big difference. It just makes more sense for a lot of people to actually know what percentage you’re at. A lot of people thought developing [mastery] was failing, which I’m pretty sure it’s not. I think that if there were percentages, it would just be more clear.”

Brunn also noticed that the decaying average has both helped and harmed his grade this year. However, he believed that, overall, focusing too much on the most recent grade did not encompass the whole picture of his learning process.

“If we didn’t have decaying average, mistakes at the beginning of the year, before you know as much, could affect you, but I think that it wouldn’t be that much of a problem because, at the beginning of the year, [the content that is taught] is made for people who don’t know a lot yet. It’s aimed for people who are not as knowledgeable on the topic. Honestly, I don’t think that the disadvantages would really be that much,” he said.

Bentley elaborated on this. Though she preferred percentages, she explained that the decision to get rid of them had beneficial effects. “I would say that we’re not as separated. If you had a 90 percent of exceeds [mastery] versus a 99 percent of exceeds [mastery], people definitely judged each other based on their percentage rather than their ranking,” she said.

This emphasis on percentages rather than the learning journey was something that Bently, along with other students, cited as a positive to the grading system.

However, she also mentioned that percentages personally helped her stay motivated in school: “I definitely prefer the percentages. I think it definitely helps you keep a target goal. I definitely push myself harder with percentages. I need 100 percent, whereas this is a general area of a grade, so it’s like ‘get into that target zone.’”

With the decaying average system, many students were also concerned that this way of grading could provide little incentive to do well at the beginning of the year, considering that those grades would account for a small percent of a student’s final grade.

“Could [decaying average] be helpful for some students? Yes,” Vasbinder said, “but also, I feel like it’s a little unfair for people that are consistently trying all year and then all of a sudden, these other people are just at the same level as them,” they said, citing that some students would be able to “slack-off” at the beginning of the year and get higher grades during the second half of the year.

Lammlein noted that decaying average “causes a lot of conversations about what assessing a student should look like, and there’s a lot of philosophical things connected to that. As we continue to dig into that, the goal is to find the right way to show that, and that’s where we are right now.”

On top of this, confusion has also surfaced around GPA calculations. When students received their first Otus report cards, grades were displayed in a unique way. Instead of converting grades to a traditional letter system, mastery grades were displayed with each LO.

Pictured above is a sample report card from Otus. In the report cards this year, Bio-Med students received the grades for each individual learning outcome, as opposed to one overall grade. Many students expressed confusion regarding the report cards, citing that their parents or themselves were confused at first.

“It was overwhelming initially,” Bently stated, addressing the report card. “Obviously, I understood it a bit more than my parents did, but my concern is how do scholarships and colleges work with that? They’re not adjust to that system, and when scholarships ask, ‘What is your grade point average?’ I usually say 4.0, because I usually have exceeds in everything. But, at this point, I don’t know. How are we supposed to know how to input that information? You can get things taken away for being inaccurate when really we just had no way to know.” Photo provided by Monica Burke.

 “I have no idea what my GPA is,” Vasbinder explained. “Last year, I could tell what my GPA is, and I used it to my advantage to figure out what colleges I could apply to or what private colleges [I could apply to]. This year, I have no idea. I’ve had to guesstimate, and I’m pretty sure my estimation is wrong. I just think it would be easier if we had normal report cards.”

For Bio-Med’s GPA calculation, the grades are eventually converted to traditional letter grades, which are only given to a student at the end of the year.

Mrs. Maggie Huffman, the administrative assistant at the counselor’s office, stated that “When students, parents or athletic directors are asking for the current GPA for someone, a report is run from OTUS requesting grades from the start of the school year to the current date.”

Pictured above depicts a chart that Bio-Med uses to determine a student’s GPA. This means that an exceeds mastery would transfer to an A, mastery would transfer to a B, developing mastery would transfer to a C, not yet mastered would transfer to a D, and no evidence of mastery would transfer to an F. Photo by Alyssa Cocchiola, associate editor.

This Otus report then converts the mastery grades to a traditional letter grade to calculate the GPA. To find a GPA, a student can also look at their transcripts.

 “Since Bio-Med does not do traditional grading periods, the district will only award final grades and final GPAs at the end of the school year,” Huffman concluded.

Though Bio-Med has switched how grades are calculated on multiple occasions, Lammlein noted that as Bio-Med continues to grow, many factors of how the school operates could be subject to change.

“[Grading calculations] could change too in the future as we continue our mastery journey, and how do we do that as a school? How do we help others know what that means? It might change, but that’s where we are right now,” she concluded.

Hull and Burke gave their advice for students struggling to adapt to the system of grading, stating, “Learning is an action requiring effort, and progress on learning is something that requires continued effort and persistence. If a learner is punished too heavily when they start out, they may be discouraged to continue to try their best.”

They also noted that the standard-based grading could be more applicable to a student’s future post-high school. When applying for a job, people are usually asked to give a resume, which shares skills instead of numbers associated with those skills.

“In the future, resumes will mirror your performance on standards more so than traditional grades. If you were to ask those with job experience about their resume and job interview, you are not able to say I got a ‘B’ at my last company,” they wrote. “Instead, you share what skills you are proficient or excel at. This is similar to how standard based grading works. You are identifying the skills you are focusing on and measuring your progress to a large goal.”

Related Content: Exploring a New Learning Management System with Otus

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