District Eyes Break From ABCs
By: Alex Scofield
How will teachers know which students are the high achievers? How will those students be rewarded? Those were the questions that parents asked the school district’s curriculum committee to answer during a highly charged meeting Wednesday night.
The questions were raised in response to the district’s plan to move away from traditional letter-grade report cards to what administrators consider to be a more effective and informative standards-based reporting system.
Through the standards-based system, teachers would send home a rubric showing parents a more acute picture of the child’s ability to meet academic standards, which had been determined by the middle school’s faculty.
For example, a 5th-grade math report would rank a student’s ability to grasp 15 different concepts on a scale that ranged from “warning” to “advanced.”
The administration said that they felt this system would give parents, teachers, and students a clearer picture of a student’s strengths and weakness.
Bourne Middle School teachers have been in the process of rolling out the new grading system this year, and the curriculum subcommittee was set this week to vote whether to recommend allowing the first standards-based report cards to be passed out at the end of this grading term in November.
The final vote would have to be made by the full school committee during its regularly scheduled meeting on Wednesday, October 7. However, the issue was tabled after parents expressed several concerns about the new grading system, including that it would fail to recognize academically gifted students and that it did not specify clearly the difference between students who are advanced and those who are merely proficient.
The curriculum subcommittee has scheduled a meeting for Friday, October 30, at 5 PM in the high school’s professional library in order to learn more about the new reporting system from teachers before it makes its recommendations.
School committee member Christine C. Crane admitted to the audience that, at this time, she was not yet well enough versed in the new system to make a recommendation.
Ms. Crane and fellow curriculum committee member Quimby P. Mahoney, both of whom were longtime school teachers, told the standing-room-only crowd that hearing feedback would help them make up their minds on the issue.
The third curriculum committee member, Jay O’Hara, said he hoped the district would be able to go forward with the new reporting system as soon as possible.
One of the primary concerns expressed by parents was the speed at which they felt the initiative was being pushed forward.
Thomas C. Gibson of Valley Bars Road said he was shocked that teachers were being asked to start implementing the new grading system this year, before it had even earned the approval of the school committee.
Assistant Superintendent Joyce G. Harrington clarified that even though the school committee had not voted to allow passing out the standards-based reports cards to parents, it had supported the concept of a shift toward a new standards-based system at a goal setting meeting several years ago.
Bourne Middle School Headmaster Mary C. Childress, who had held meetings with parents about the issue throughout the summer, again attempted to assuage their concerns.
She explained that an advantage of the standards-based system is that it would be based on a student’s ability to grasp concepts by the end of the grading semester, rather than grading them based on the aggregate of their scores from throughout the semester.
“Letter grades do not tell parents how well students are grasping concepts or if they are meeting the standards,” she said. “One of the biggest bonuses to students is that they get much more specificity on their report card.”
Ms. Childress also spoke to the questions about recognizing high achievers.
Some parents had stated their child’s teacher did not even know the difference between an “advanced” and “proficient” score, and that other teachers had lumped grades ranging from 90 to 78 under the same umbrella of “proficient.”
Ms. Childress explained that it was true that there were some assignments on which it would be impossible to give a student an “advanced” grade, but that was only because the assignment did not test advanced understanding of a topic.
As an example, she said a student could not receive an “advanced” score on a simple vocabulary test, as such an exam would not truly test a student’s advanced knowledge of the subject matter.
She said that as the school year progressed, students would be tasked with completing more challenging assignments, and in turn be able to receive “advanced” scores.
Another major concern raised by parents was that in phasing in the new grading system, the middle school was also eliminating the Junior National Honor Society and the honor roll.
Angela Sweeten of Spinnaker Lane told the committee that the honor roll and the Junior NHS “motivate [her daughter] like nothing else could.”
She said she feared that by implementing the new grading system, the middle school would be “leaving all the students who are ‘above’ behind.”
Mr. Gibson agreed. He said that as a student he was motivated by setting goals and doing his best to achieve them. Taking away the honor society and the honor roll would eliminate those goals.
After the meeting, Ms. Childress said that it was true that the district would no longer offer the Junior NHS to students this year, but said that students who were already in the organization would be able to maintain that status.
She said that, as the Junior NHS is a national organization, students are required to adhere to its broad, nationwide standards, something she was uncomfortable with as a headmaster.
“There are very strict rules and requirements for student behavior and academic prowess and we do not think that they are very adolescent friendly,” she said. “But we totally believe in the high achievement and community service aspect of the organization and we are going to go forward with that in our own way.”
In an interview following the Wednesday meeting, Mr. Gibson said that he disagreed that the standards set by the Junior NHS were too strict or inappropriate for middle school students.
He said that his children understood the standards that were set by the organization and were intelligent enough to choose whether or not they wanted to strive to meet them.
“The kids who are in the organization, they strive for excellence, and they deserve it,” he said.
Lucille M. Sorrenti of School House Road said she had a daughter who recently graduated from Bourne High School who had been in the National Honor Society and now has a middle school student who is not.
She said that the distinction did not bother her, nor did it bother her children.
Ms. Sorrenti also disagreed with a statement by school committee member Christine C. Crane that middle school students who did not make it into the organization would feel discouraged.
“I don’t think it makes those kids who don’t make it feel like losers,” she said. “I think it gives them something to strive for.”
Ms. Childress said that the middle school was in the process of forming a Leadership and Service Team that would be in the vein of the Junior NHS, but would be tailored to the administration’s standards.
“We’re also going to have to come up with a better acronym than LAST,” she said.
During Wednesday’s meeting, parents scoffed at the idea that students would strive to join a club with such a name.
“Nobody wants to be last,” one parent remarked.
Ms. Childress also rejected the notion put forward by some parents that the new grading system would “reward mediocrity,” because it would not challenge students to earn As.
“I don’t think it rewards mediocrity. I think it does just the opposite.” she said. “I just think it gives parents a better idea of what their students understand and what they do not understand.”
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