Saturday, October 5, 2013

Standards-based grades: Coming soon to a school near you - By Michelle Libby

 Letter grades like A’s and B’s are soon to be a thing of the past for public schools in Maine. On May 19, 2012, the Maine Legislature passed into law LD1422, An Act to Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy, a bill sponsored by Senator Brian Langley. This law requires schools in Maine that receive State funding to change from a letter grade system, where scores are averaged to receive a mark to standards-based grading, where students must demonstrate that they meet certain requirements before they can move ahead or get credit for that particular class. 
For Windham, this impacts the current eighth grade class more than any other. The class of 2018 will be the first one to graduate with the new proficiency-based diploma. What will that look like? Administrators and teachers aren’t sure yet. 

“We set the standards for what we are going to hold students to to meet those standards,” said Windham High School principal Chris Howell. Through the proficiency-based diploma Windham High School (WHS) is certifying what a child knows and doesn’t know. 

Each year when a child graduates from a high school no one can tell exactly what the child has learned over their educational career. 

“Standards ensure consistent learning expectations,” according to Leadership in Action, a briefing series for New England educational leaders. “In many high schools, each teacher decides how grades will be awarded. The result? Some courses are very demanding, while others have few requirements. Grades may be based entirely on the quality of a student’s work, while others consider attendance, class participation, and homework completion. Without consistent learning expectations, schools cannot make sure that all students acquire the essential skills they need.”

No longer will students be promoted by grade. They will have to pass the standards before they can receive credit for the course, according to Howell. There will be many opportunities to meet the standards. It’s not going to keep students from graduating if they missed the standard the first time, there will be other chances, said Howell. To make sure this happens, Howell and the teachers at WHS are revamping the curriculum to provide those opportunities. 

“Learning standards establish a minimum level of proficiency, based on common high expectations, that all students must meet before moving on,” said Leadership in Action. 

“I hope when we graduate students they will be better prepared and we’ll have greater transparency,” Howell said. “We’re not going to do any harm to any kids.” 

Schools that do not receive State funding are not required to comply with the law. Schools like Windham Christian Academy and Cheverus are not bound by the law to used standards-based grading. Cheverus is planning to still use a traditional grading system, according to assistant principal Bill Burke. 

“We are working pretty hard,” said director of curriculum, instruction and assessment at RSU 14 Christine Hesler. Using guiding principles and trying to figure out how to report these to colleges are two things the administration is working on. The RSU is working with Great Schools Partnerships, a non-profit organization, to help schools implement standards-based learning. 

At WHS, for the first few years of this new grading system, there may be two transcripts for graduating seniors. One will be traditional with letter grades and a grade point average (GPA), while the other will be the proficiency-based transcript letting colleges know which standards a student had to meet to earn the diploma. 

The proficiency-based report card is not mandatory, according to a State website for schools to use as a resource to explain proficiency-based and standards-based learning and grading.

“Letter grades have nothing to do with the changes that are outlined. If I can sum it up in one idea, this is about students demonstrating proficiency in all standards to earn a diploma. Grades are feedback and are a product of the process,” said Howell.

“The last thing we want to do is hinder a student from getting into a school,” said Howell. “It’s a complex system.” 

For students in the special education program, it could mean that they might not receive a diploma at graduation, instead they would get a certificate of attendance if they do not meet the standards set in their individualized education plan. 

Having a system where students can demonstrate proficiency in certain area, provides different educational opportunities. “What do (parents) want the senior year to look like for their kids? They could earn up to 30 credits from a community college or the University of Maine for free or a very reduced rate,” said Howell.
Leadership in Action tells educators that “The focus is on learning, not time. In most high schools, students are expected to attend class for a certain amount of time every day and graduate in four years. The time students spend in school is consistent, but what they learn is often extremely inconsistent. In a proficiency-based system, learning expectations remain constant while time is variable. One student may graduate in three years, while another graduates in five—but every student graduates prepared for future success.” 

“Obviously this is a work in progress,” Hesler said.

The Standards
There will be standards for every class offered at the high school level, with usually eight concepts to master. Think of checks in a box that a student must receive to earn credit for that skill. There will also be guiding principles, for example a student needs to be a clear and effective communicator and a responsible and involved citizen. These must also be met before graduation. 

Tracking the standards for teachers will be tricky. Reporting and tracking 1,100 students is a lot of work. Hesler is looking into software to track the standards for each child. It may be a dashboard of sorts that is accessible to teachers, it may be something else. They are looking at a few different programs. “I’ve got feelers out there to figure out what’s best for Windham High School,” she said. 

 “This has to be perfect. We’re talking about students and their college careers and technical careers,” said Howell.

Getting into college
“Colleges in Maine have signed off on not to disadvantage a student from Maine,” Howell said.  In 2013, the New England Secondary Schools Consortium approached colleges and universities throughout New England and asked them to endorse proficiency-based approaches to teaching, learning, and graduation, while also stating that no student will be disadvantaged because they were educated in a proficiency-based learning system.” The schools that signed this endorsement can be found at 

The University of Maine in Orono is one of the schools whose name is on that site. Sharon Oliver, senior director of admissions, has seen different transcripts over the years. She’s seen schools that rank students and some that don’t. “We are counting on the information that the schools send us,” she said. “Different schools have interpreted the law in different ways,” she said. According to Oliver, schools like Windham send a sheet explaining the transcript to each college. 

“When a student applies to a school we send a report on what that means. We tell about Windham High School and information about how they grade,” Hesler said. 

Oliver said UMaine will rely heavily on that description sheet. 

“We want to see where the rubber meets the road,” Oliver said. “What are the standards and did they meet or exceed them.” 

“We do a holistic read,” she said. Standardized tests like the SATs also provide information for admissions officers. “Summary data like GPA, class rank all help to make a snap decision,” Oliver said. 

Admissions wants to see what a student was involved in, are they academically qualified for the major they are interested in and can they be successful. 

“We are counting on high schools to work with us as a team,” Oliver said. 

Colleges are invited to take classes on how to evaluate the proficiency-based transcripts according to David Svenson, from the marketing department at Saint Joseph’s College in Standish. “The transcripts are considered equal for consideration. We are looking at the whole package,” Svenson said. 

Southern Maine Community College said that the new transcripts will not affect them. “We want to see that they have graduated from high school. The only thing we look for is that a student has a minimum requirement for English competency. They find this out through the Accuplacer, SAT, ACT or TOPEL standardized tests, according to an admissions officer there. 

At Boston University, one admissions counselor, who asked not to be named, had never seen a proficiency-based transcript. “Not having a GPA, one of the main criteria to match themselves up to others and to not have one of the main criteria would certainly seem like a downfall,” he said. “It’s not going to be easy to evaluate.” In a school that receives 52,000 applications with certain programs needing a minimum GPA to apply “it’s a disadvantage, almost a nuisance,” he said.  

The administration at WHS is working with the Department of Education in Augusta to make the transition easier for students and parents. 

“The last thing we want to do is make things confusing for parents,” said Howell. The hard part for most administrators is the perceived lack of support at the State level to support this program financially. The law was supposed to go into effect last year, but was held back because of lack of funding. 

Hall-Dale High School graduated its first class with standards-based grading last June, according to Howell. The law goes into effect on January 1, 2014. 

Oliver from UMaine summed up the requirements, “it’s all about communication.”

At the RSU 14 administration has said, this is a work in progress and will continue to evolve over the next few months and beyond.

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