There’s been quite a lot of angst among Keene High School parents, and some others, regarding the school district’s plans to rejigger students’ grades. We use the word “grades,” since that’s what most people would call them, though perhaps the district’s administrators would prefer “assessments.” The change is just part of a plan that’s been in the works for several years, but only in the past few months became public.
So far, the biggest issue has been the near-complete lack of communication — first in not raising the plan publicly far earlier and gaining buy-in from the start, and more recently, in tossing about confusing terms and jargon, while making major decisions without advance notice. Parents don’t always make clear that they’re invested in their kids’ education, but they do react strongly to change, especially change that doesn’t resonate with how they recall schooling.
After a public “questioning session” in which Keene High Principal Jim Logan explained the Keene High plan and assured attendees nothing drastic was set in stone yet, the school board met the following week and voted to do away with finals and midterms. This basically reinforced the idea for some that school officials had already decided on the changes and don’t care what parents think.
The Jaffrey-Rindge district ran into a buzz saw last year when parents objected to its plans for shifting to competency-based assessments, which were about to be implemented. And that was despite having had a panel charged with discussing the objectives the previous year that included parents.
Sentinel education reporter Meg McIntyre, in a report published Aug. 10-11, looked at how the idea of competency-based education is playing out elsewhere. Officials in Kingston and Claremont — two districts that have been moving to this system for several years — noted its benefits while expressing some different thoughts on how to get there. Brian Stack, principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, called GPA and class rank “the worst thing we can do in terms of grading,” arguing it says nothing about what students have learned. But Claremont High Principal Patricia Barry said traditional number or letter grades can coexist with proficiency grading. Elsewhere nearby, Brattleboro Union High School has been moving to a competency-based system since 2013, and now uses both.
The shift to competency-based education, as directed more than a decade ago by the state Department of Education, effectively means not passing students ahead until they’ve shown they really understand the subject matter. It relies on determining a person’s competence by assessing their knowledge and skills in a real-life situation.
This begs the question: Isn’t that already the case? It certainly ought to be. It seems a pretty good definition of “learning,” which after all, is the point of education. If this is really a drastic change, then our schools have had it wrong all along. But it doesn’t have to be that drastic.
It will mean some changes in teaching. The move away from midterms and finals reflects one aspect of the competency-based model; that students’ progress ought to be measured as they go, rather than at specific endpoints. But tests themselves aren’t necessarily a bad way to measure progress and mastery. The challenge is in figuring out what forms of assessment work in specific subjects.
Importantly, down the line, it may also mean changes to staffing. One of the goals of the new system is to allow students to advance based on their own abilities; that could well mean combining age groups by ability, rather than trying to bring everyone along at the same pace. This could be good news both for gifted students, who are sometimes constrained by the needs of the many, and for struggling students, who need more individual help for a longer period. But it likely won’t come without shifting staff needs. That will need to be watched carefully down the line, and again, communicating with parents and the community will be a key.
As Barry put it: “It’s absolutely critical, based on what I’ve witnessed here in Claremont, that the parents be a part of the conversation from the very beginning.”
As for the college admissions process, among the major concerns of parents, officials surveyed — including those at prestigious universities such as Harvard and Dartmouth — say they’re fine making decisions on students coming out of competency-based programs. College admissions officials have had to deal with this sort of thing before, such as in de-emphasizing the importance of SAT scores.
As expressed in theory, this shift seems a worthwhile goal. Certainly, ensuring students actually know what they’re supposed to before moving them on to the next level ought to be, at least, the floor in educating our children.
And again, the implication that this hasn’t been the case is a bit unsettling in itself. It makes even more imperative the need to both inform and listen to parents and the broader community in establishing a new system — something at which the Keene board and administrators have thus far proven not to have mastered.