Shift to standards-based system a complex effort



BAR HARBOR — “I think this is the most important work I’ve ever done in terms of educational reform,” Julie Keblinsky, dean of curriculum at Mount Desert Island High School, said of implementing a standards-based system of education.

“It’s the most honest, most ethical and most responsive system you can put in place.”

But some parents of area middle school and high school students are skeptical and concerned.

The entire MDI Regional School System is transitioning to a system of teaching, learning, tracking and grading that is based on specific standards of achievement for each course. The standards are benchmarks.

“They are the exact things we expect kids to know and to be able to do,” Keblinsky said.

Students receive a grade of 4, 3, 2 or 1 depending on whether they exceed, meet, partially meet or don’t meet the standards.

Standards-based grades replace the traditional A, B, C and D grading system, which was much more subjective. Under the old system, there were no set standards for what students should know at the end of a course. And grades often were based not just on test scores, but also on factors such as class participation, turning in homework on time and following directions.

“We’re shifting away from an understanding of grades as compensation, as reward, as judgment, as punishment and away from a system that has been broken for a long time,” said Julie Meltzer, the school system’s director of curriculum, assessment and instruction.

High school Principal Matt Haney said that with the standards-based system, what matters is “not whether you’ve tried hard to do what I’ve asked you to do, but whether you have actually done it.”

He said the groundwork for the switch to standards-based education has been laid over the past several years.

“Most of that work was about figuring out what the standards were going to be, how we were going to teach to them, and how we were going to assess whether students had been able to achieve those standards,” Haney said. “The last piece of that is the grading.”

Implementing the new system isn’t as complex as coordinating the invasion of Normandy, but it is pretty daunting because there are so many components, and the stakes are high.

Teacher buy-in

Teachers not only have to understand the concept and embrace it, they need to rethink how they design instruction and assess student achievement.

“We still have teachers in very different places of understanding,” Meltzer said. “Some are very clear and articulate. Some are trying very hard to get their head around it. Some are just now really engaging with it.”

Overall, she said, “The teachers are really engaging and being wonderful, but this is all new to many of them. It’s going to take them time.”

Along with teachers, all of the students and parents have to be educated about standards-based learning and assessment, and they, too, have to be on board with it.

Also, the right technology must be in place to support tracking and grading, and there needs to be consistency from school to school. That is still a work in progress.

Standardization

It isn’t really an issue in the elementary grades. But there are seven schools in the system with middle school students, and they are currently using four different variations of the standards-based grading model.

“We basically have four pilots going on right now,” Meltzer said. “We fully intend to engage parents in getting feedback, having focus groups with students and discussing with teachers what worked and what didn’t. The idea is for (grading) to be completely uniform as of next year.”

Middle school students received their first trimester grades under the new system in December. Those report cards caused some parents to be “extremely anxious,” according to Meltzer.

She said those parents were concerned that the grades, which are intended to show progress toward meeting standards, actually indicated that their child was not doing well.

In explaining standards-based grading on the school system’s website, Meltzer wrote, “We are not penalizing those who took longer to meet a given standard. Nor are we rewarding students just because they learn quickly. Except for the end of the year or course, all grade reporting is essentially progress reporting.”

Meltzer said some anxiety is to be expected when something unfamiliar is introduced, especially when it involves one’s children. She said she wanted to reassure parents that “no one is going to get hurt” by this transition.

“We’re designing a system that is going to successfully support all kids,” she said. “Everybody is in good hands. We’re getting better at what we were already pretty good at.”

High school experience

The transition to a fully standards-based grading system is ongoing at the high school, as well. And some parents, particularly those of top-tier students, the ones administrators call “high flyers,” have expressed concern.

“The biggest fear is that there is no way for their child to demonstrate whatever exceptionality they may have and what impact that is going to have on what they do after high school,” Haney said. “Much of the concern is about the highly selective colleges that we traditionally send a lot of students to and whether every kid is now going to look the same to those schools.”

Meltzer said there are several reasons why that won’t be the case and why truly outstanding students will continue to stand out. She said colleges still look at a student’s grade point average (GPA) and at whether the student has taken advanced courses.

She said colleges also pay a lot of attention to teachers’ recommendations.

“If students have bad work habits, if they don’t contribute to their school, if they are not really outstanding, they’re not going to get outstanding recommendations. But if they are, they will.”

Meltzer said highly selective colleges still give a lot of weight to SAT scores, and that is another factor that favors MDI High students. She said the SAT has been redesigned to align with the new achievement standards.

“So, our students will have an advantage over students from programs that don’t have that [standards-based model],” she said.

However, when it comes to course grades, Haney acknowledged that it won’t be as easy for some students to truly excel.

“I think we will have fewer students with very, very high grade point averages,” he said. “We have a lot right now. A lot. And there will still be a significant number of very, very, very high achieving students. They aren’t going to just disappear.

“They’re still here and still achieving well, and there are a lot of other ways for them to distinguish themselves, which they already do.”

Haney said he also expects there to be fewer students with very low GPAs.

Keblinsky said two big advantages of the standards-based system are that students know exactly what is expected of them academically and grading is much more consistent.

“Many of the teachers who are engaged in this work say they would not go back [to the old system],” Meltzer said.

“I don’t think any of them would,” Haney added.

He said he is happy that parents are asking questions about the transition to the standards-based system.

“We have been working on this for a very long time, but we are looking at it through the lens of educators,” he said. “So, we really need to know what parents see and think and wonder about. We can have a much more effective end product if we know what parents need from us.”

Meltzer said the intention all along has been to focus this spring on engaging the community, especially parents, in conversation and encouraging feedback.

“We want them to know that, during this period when we’re working things out, we’re going to be more flexible, not less,” she said. “We’re going to make sure those kids who are in the transition are really well served.”

Meltzer said it’s going to take a little more time and a lot more work to complete the transition.

“Not all of the issues are solved yet,” she said. “It isn’t perfect yet.”

But, Haney observed, neither was the old system.

Dick Broom

Dick Broom

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Dick Broom covers the towns of Mount Desert and Southwest Harbor, Mount Desert Island High School and the school system board and superintendent's office. He enjoys hiking with his golden retriever and finding new places for her to swim. dbroom@mdislander.com

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