SHERIDAN — This year marked the first of a gradual shift in educational philosophy for Sheridan County School District 3. The district is in the process of changing its assessment system to standards-referenced grading, which uses numbers instead of letters to determine student grades.

“It hasn’t been an easy transition,” SCSD3 superintendent Charles Auzqui said. “This is the way in education that we’ve done it for decades. Now it’s a whole new way of thinking; it’s a whole new way of teaching; it’s a whole new way of assessing kids.”

Ideally, the new system will grade students based on their level of knowledge in particular course topics, as opposed to an overall letter grade based on a few assignments and tests. For example, a report card might say a student mastered addition, subtraction and multiplication, but still needs to work on division.

With the new scale, students are graded from 0 to 4. A grade of 4 means a student has an in-depth understanding of complex application problems.

; 3 means a student has proficient knowledge of most of the complex areas; 2 means a student grasps the fundamentals and is learning to apply concepts and skills; 1 means a student has basic understanding with the help of a teacher; 0 means a student has no understanding of the topic, even with help.

“I think that brings a challenge and what people are kind of scared of,” Auzqui said. “It specifically tells you what kids have mastered and not mastered.”

SCSD3 has had numbers-based grading for kindergartners for almost a decade, but Auzqui started talking with the school district board of trustees two years ago about doing it for the rest of the grade levels.

SCSD3 began implementing the system in grades K-2 this year and will move to higher grades in the upcoming years. In three years, Auzqui hopes all K-12 students are assessed via standards-referenced grading. SCSD3 will convert the number grades into a GPA, which is especially important for high school students applying to college. The conversion is based on work by education theory researchers, notably Robert Marzano and Rick Wormeli, two of the early researchers on standards-referenced grading. The different system will not alter a student’s GPA.

Auzqui said it has been challenging to explain the changes and receive buy-in from teachers, students and parents alike.

“It takes a lot of training and, more importantly, some serious, open communication,” Auzqui said. “This is a long-term journey.”

If Sheridan County School District 1 provides any indication, the process for SCSD3 will indeed be lengthy.

SCSD1 superintendent Marty Kobza said SCSD1 has used standards-referenced grading in earnest for about five years. This year marks the first that all SCSD1 students have used the new grading scale, making it the first school district in Wyoming to do so. Other districts use the scale for some, but not all, grade levels.

“It’s an entire belief system, philosophy and culture that we’re going to meet individual kids’ needs,” Kobza said of standards-referenced grading. “It’s not about the grade. It’s about the learning and the process of going through that and mastering the material.”

Kobza similarly said it wasn’t easy to get all teachers on board. The change involved more work for teachers, who had to adjust testing formats and keep track of every students’ progress on particular topics in a given course.

SCSD1 changed its test formats to involve more explanatory problems. For example, instead of 100 multiple-choice questions, a test instead has 10 to 15 application problems.

“We think that’s when true learning occurs,” Kobza said.

Teachers have to instruct students who are advanced, those doing well and those who fall behind. Kobza said simultaneously instructing students at a variety of levels continues to be the toughest part of education. That is especially the case in elementary school, where students can’t take as many advanced classes as they can in middle and high school.

Kobza believes standards-referenced grading emphasizes mutual responsibility, meaning teachers are responsible for giving kids learning tools and students are responsible for using those tools. He remembers his high school algebra teacher letting him take home a test and turn it in the next day, which artificially improved his grade in the class but didn’t benefit him in the long run.

“I cheated myself and [the teacher] cheated me by not making me accountable for that,” Kobza said. “Then I went onto college and I struggled with math because I didn’t have the foundation and basis that I needed.”

Auzqui said SCSD3 has had setbacks this year but overall has made significant advances in the past eight months with standards-referenced grading.

“I don’t think we’re fully to where we need to be,” Auzqui said. “There’s that transitioning from where we wish to be and where we’re going, so there are going to be some mistakes … We still haven’t gotten full buy-in yet, but that’s OK, because it’s new.”

The wheels are in motion for the arduous, foundational shift in SCSD3’s educational philosophy.