Eliminating midterm and final exams? Getting rid of grades and class rank? Well, that sounds extreme. And given the tendency to zero in on the most extreme aspect of any news, we can see why the Keene school board and administrators have been set on their heels since news of plans to overhaul educational assessment at Keene High School began to spread.
Such plans have been in the works for several years now within the administration of the Keene School District, though they only recently came to the attention of parents and the public in general. And they’re not set in stone, school principal Jim Logan noted at a “questioning session” Tuesday evening. They may never occur, in fact; the real discussion underway is about becoming more attuned to assessing student success based on competencies, rather than meeting behavior-based goals.
The driving force behind the proposed change, administrators say, is the state Department of Education’s mandate that student learning be measured based on mastery of the subject — or competency — rather than by the amount of time spent learning it. That, on its surface, is a concept with which it’s hard to disagree. The point of education is learning. One might well ask why any school district isn’t already basing its assessments on competency.
The catch here is in how that learning is measured. In a 2014 report on the topic, the Education Department noted a grade, based at least in part on having spent the required amount of time in class, isn’t as valuable as an assessment that more fully reflects the student’s understanding of the material.
OK, but that doesn’t mean traditional letter grades and grade-point averages are worthless. They mean whatever the school system dictates they mean. However one assesses competency or mastery of a subject, it can still be reflected in a grade that parents and colleges can use to gauge success.
Thus, the change being proposed doesn’t necessarily boil down to “getting rid of grades.” It’s a worthwhile attempt to seek the best way of measuring students’ readiness for the next level. In an era of college grade inflation and in which even community colleges say too many students are arriving at their doors unequipped to handle the rigors of higher education they were supposedly being prepared for in high school, such questions need to be addressed.
Given the importance of the issue, however, parents have every right to demand they be kept informed and that their thoughts on the matter be taken into account. It is, after all, their children’s education we’re talking about.
That’s a major lesson to be learned from the current discontent in Keene, which could have been easily forecast based on the turmoil experienced in the Jaffrey-Rindge district a year ago, when parents became aware administrators were planning a similar change.
Late in 2017, Jaffrey-Rindge’s school board approved a new “strategic design,” which included the change from standard grading based on results to one that separates students’ “work habits” from knowledge and skills. The administration set about implementing that new model until about this time last year, when parents started paying attention and didn’t love what they were seeing. Ultimately, the district went ahead with a phase of the plan this past year and most of the parents calmed down.
In Keene’s case, it’s notable the school board’s response to parents’ concerns last month was: Don’t ask us; we don’t develop the curriculum. The board will ultimately have to approve the final plan.
In the meantime, parents of current high-schoolers are worried about how colleges will accurately judge their children’s admission worthiness. That’s something some colleges have worked out, and others really haven’t, as the push away from traditional assessments is evolving. Eventually, we trust, it’ll get resolved. It’s hard to blame parents whose kids may get caught up in any confusion in the interim for being concerned, though.
Logan says the Keene district’s plan is still being worked on and parents’ input will be considered. That’s as it should be, but since this kerfuffle arose from concerns that few, if any, parents had been informed of the potential changes, the real takeaway is that educating students takes cooperation from all involved — teachers, administrators, parents and the students themselves — and can’t advance without the cooperation of all involved. And that requires communication at every step, not just when it’s time to ask for buy-in to a plan that’s already been developed.
The school board is effectively the liaison between the schools and the everyday residents of the community, including parents. It’s up to the board to make sure everyone knows what’s going on.