November 15, 2013

Proficiency based grades presented to school board - By Michelle Libby

Last Wednesday at the weekly RSU14 school board meeting, Eric Colby was sworn in as a new member of the board of directors. The board spared no time in putting Colby right to work with presentations from Windham High School principal Chris Howell and vice principal Kelli Deveaux, as well as curriculum coordinator for the district Christine Hesler. 

Howell spoke about the continued work with the proficiency-based grading system that will be put into place for the class of 2018, who are the current eighth graders. The system will be unique to Windham, Howell said. 

“This work is organic,” said superintendent Sandy Prince.

“We aren’t going to adapt someone else’s work. We’re going to do what makes sense for Windham High School and what makes sense for our community and also, lastly, what makes sense for our students and our staff,” he said. “We can be a model for other schools,” he added. The administration has partnered with Great Schools Partnership to help create the model they will use.

Going back to the statute LD1422, he broke down for the board what a proficiency-based diploma means. 

Over all of the years a student is in high school, they must have a math, a language arts/English and a science class. The statute doesn’t specify the number of years a high school education is, Howell pointed out. He did say that only one percent of the student population might need an alternative learning situation. 

Another section of the statute said that students must meet the standards in all content areas of which there are eight (technology, foreign language, career prep, visual and performing arts in addition to math, English and science).

“In order for us to give a diploma, a student must have met particular proficiency in the standards as outlined,” Howell said. He also said that the students must meet the standards set forth in the guiding principles, which is a natural marriage. Guiding principles are also called “soft skills”, like being a clear and effective communicator and being a life-long learner. These skills will continue to go across all eight content areas. One way students are already meeting those guiding principles is through the 40 hours of required community service. Howell would like to see those hours be given more direction and use them toward a capstone project during a student’s junior and senior years. 

He suggests, freshmen and sophomores will volunteer with things that are important to them. From the summer of their junior year to March of the senior year, students would have to find something that’s of interest to them, learn about it and determine a problem surrounding it and do something about it. This helps them to become responsible and involved citizens, another one of the guiding principles. 

Students would complete their capstone project with a public showcase.
Proficiency-based grading “provide opportunities for some and also in some cases presents some challenges,” Howell said. For example, if all students are required to have a foreign language, right now WHS does not have the staffing for every student to take a foreign language over the four years.
 “It’s a change in paradigm and in thinking,” said board member Kate Brix. “We have to be exceptional in our communication.”

At WHS the students will receive grades on a transcript, but in addition to the transcript and a description of the school demographics and class types, the new two-page transcript will identify the standards that the students will have met for graduation. It will not be a 45-page transcript. Howell said he knows that a typical application receives four to six minutes on the desk of an admission counselor at a college. RSU14 wants to provide additional information to the schools our seniors are applying to, without disadvantaging them.

Right now the diplomas mean something different to everyone who crosses the stage. One student went to Yale, another went to work immediately, another went to UMaine. They all had different meaning for the same diploma. “Now, there’s a minimal level to say you’ve earned that degree,” Howell said.     
At this time, Howell and his team have identified all but two graduation criteria and they know the baseline performances. 

“Regardless of what happens with the state we will continue to provide that transcript, which is what every school gets, but in addition we are looking to provide a greater definition of what students can or can’t do,” said Howell. 

“If we’re concerned about our students not getting a diploma and we know they are graduating without meeting these standards, standards necessary to be a successful citizen in our communities, aren’t we doing them a disservice if we don’t stop and say ‘I believe in you so much I won’t let you leave the high school until you have the skills you need to be successful.’?” asked Deveaux.

The benefits of proficiency-based grading are a minimum level of performance. Articulating between grade levels. The staff has scoured the entire curriculum and has looked at units that may not meet standards and then reevaluated those. There will also be better transparency. Communication between teachers and students, and school and parents are important in this time of change, said Howell. The best outcome according to Howell is that there will be multiple pathways to meet the standards. There may be ways to meet standards without taking a particular course, or students may be able to reach the standards in a college level class. 

“We will continue to have grades,” said Howell. It will be a dual reporting system, he added.

Achievement data
Christine Hesler spoke briefly about the achievements of the teachers and students at RSU14. Fifty-two percent of teacher have a Master’s degree or higher, compared to 37.9 percent of Maine teachers. 

RSU14 is seeing an increase in students receiving free and reduced cost lunch and breakfast meals, which speaks to the economics of the community. 

Students completed the NECAP testing in October and the results will not come back to the district until January or February, said Hesler. The NECAP assessment will no longer be used and instead RSU14 will use the Smarter Balance Assessment, which is given in late spring and is taken on a computer.

Hesler will present to the board later when more data is given to her, including RSU14s Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) scores.

New board member Jennifer Fleck will be sworn in at the next board meeting.

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