Saturday, February 8, 2014

Overall Grading Practices In A PBE System & RSU 3's Plans Regarding Transitioning Forward

First, let me take a minute to personally thank one of our parents, Whitney Aitken, for posting a comment on my last post regarding the importance of Transparency in a PBE system.  Her questions centered primarily on grading practices, especially at the high school which I thought made for an excellent foundation for an entirely new post centered on making sure to answer Whitney's questions as well as the questions of many other parents on what grading might look like, especially at the high school level, in RSU 3's PBE system.

Before I get to the specific answers to the high school question, however, I think its important to start with what we already know, our "traditional grading system".  You and I all experienced the traditional grading system as students, and our children have as well.  Typically the traditional grading system was based on a 100 point scale.  Even A's, B's, and C's were based on the 100 point scale with 93's and above being considered an A, 85 to 92 was a B, 76 to 84 was a C and 70-75 was a D and anything below a 70 was considered an F, or something very similar.

In this grading system, averaging is prevalent.  In my own personal experienced as a student averaging was probably the only thing that allowed me to get through Freshman English!  If you can't tell. .. I'm not thoroughly skilled in grammar.  I never learned exactly where all those commas, semicolons, and periods should go.  I never really learned why you couldn't start a sentence with "And" or when a quotation mark was or wasn't supposed to be used, and I've always been what I refer to as a "site speller". .. therefore I have difficulty with spelling as well.  Most of my problems with English Grammar actually stem back to when I was in the 6th grade.  Up until that point I had considered myself a pretty good writer.  I loved to write.  I wrote stories and poetry and even lyrics to songs but then my 6th grade grammar teacher "broke me" of my poor grammatical ways and said that my writing was meaningless if I couldn't spell correctly or put punctuation in the right place, or understand what a Gerund was (what the heck is a Gerund anyway? - I still don't know).  End result was that I lost all confidence in my writing and I began to "hide" from my teachers in this area.  I would do just the bare minimum required to practice my spelling.  I would fail my spelling tests.  I would fail my grammar tests, but I was a hard worker - so I'd always pick my grades up by doing my homework religiously and by participating in class discussions.

Long story short, all through Elementary School and High School I never learned the importance of spelling or grammar and I was allowed not to learn because I did my homework and because I was talented in other ways like in the interpretation of literature and reading comprehension.  It all "averaged out", which made me feel just fine. .. but then came this little thing called COLLEGE! I went to college still not having a good grasp of spelling or grammar.  Can you imagine that?  I was a reader (thank goodness) but I was still afraid of technical writing and I wanted to be a History Major.  Again. .. can you imagine that?  It would have been one thing maybe if I had wanted to be an engineer where everything was math and computations, but no. .. I wanted to be a History Teacher.  You know, someone who could write essays and research papers and yet my entire school experience had not prepared me to do this.  I went to college my freshman year and I have to be honest - I almost gave up!  It it weren't for a history professor who took me under his wing - I probably would have.  I struggled and worked my tail off - learning all of what I had to learn in History and other subjects while at the same time re-learning what I should have learned in Elementary and High School.  As you can tell, I did pretty well for myself, but more because of who I was as a learner than because of how my K-12 years prepared me for success.  My personality didn't let me quit, even when my skill set should have told me to do so.

To me, this is the part of our traditional grading system that bothers me.  Students can simply say "I choose not to learn this essential skill" and fail entire tests and projects and yet make it up in the average, unknowingly setting themselves up for either failure or some very difficult times in their learning futures.  And maybe that won't negatively impact every student.  Maybe students learned the skill of perseverance and can find a way to muscle through - but my 18 years of experience in public education has taught me that that is often not the case and more often then not we set our students up for failure by inadvertently telling them it is "ok" to not learn essential skills.  In a PBE system, we aren't asking students to learn everything, but we have identified what we believe are "essential skills" that every child should know and be able to demonstrate their knowledge of and I believe that if we can ensure that every child meets these essential skills, we will have set our children up for future success in their learning vs. the harsh realities I faced as a young college student.  These essential skills, if taught well, through the passions and interests of students can build the foundations for student success in learning and in life!

Sorry, I digressed, but I believe its important to contextualize these conversations and I'm a story teller so telling stories helps me to do that - now on to Whitney's specific questions:

Whitney's first question is around not understanding the 1-4 grading system and how a student who challenges themselves can work at a level 4 and get the "same grade" as his peers working on level 3.  She asks how he (her son) is to be recognized (for lack of a better word) as a high achieving student?

GREAT QUESTION WHITNEY!  So, the first thing to understand Whitney is that the High School, is still very much using a traditional grading structure, although some teachers are experimenting with 1-4 scale, they are "translating" that score to 100 point scale for the purposes of reporting in Infinite Campus.  When you see 1,2,3,and 4 language right now, that language is around a level 1 learning level (basic knowledge), a level 2 learning level (foundational knowledge), a level 3 learning level (proficient) and a level 4 learning level (Advanced).  It is the expectation that ALL students meet the level 3 learning level goals and can demonstrate their understanding of these level 3 learning goals.  That is a "minimum standard" - kinda like its always been the expectation of most parents that their child "pass" a class with at least a 70.  Some parents expect more, but the 70 has always been treated as a "minimum standard" because anything under that was considered "failing".

So in a PBE system, what we have done is identified these essential skills and we've identified what it would look like if a student understood those essential skills and we call that a "score 3" - or Proficient.  Now, what we always want to honor is a student's willingness to challenge themselves and push themselves further so a student who has met proficiency will be encouraged to go "deeper" in their skill set to get the score 4 on their learning target and be rewarded for doing so.  In the traditional model, we used "honor roll" or "high honors" and we "weighted grades" that were earned by students in more complex courses like AP courses, etc.  In our PBE model we intend upon doing the same or similar things, but before we can go too far in that direction, we are trying to work as a high school staff in creating some common grading practices so that everyone is working across a common foundational system.  Once we get those common grading practices in place, we will then make decisions regarding things like "weighting" and athletic eligibility, and honor roll, etc..  Ultimately, we will take our scoring scales and report those out at the Measurement Topic (Standards) level and then convert each of these to an overall  GPA (like we do now) and it will be those Standards level scores and the overall GPA that will be reported on a transcript given to colleges.

What we are seeing other PBE High Schools in Maine do is to develop a system where instead of "honor roll" or High honors" we create a system where we designate students as "Cum laude" or
Suma Cum Laude" like colleges do using our scoring scale system.  This is done by expecting that every student meet a 3 at the Measurement Topic or Standards level , but then giving "weights" to students who choose to challenge themselves by going above and beyond the minimum learning standards.  Again, all of this could be translated very easily into a 1-4 GPA that colleges and universities understand - making sure we DO NOT put our students at risk of getting into the schools of their choice.  Additionally, by working to create a series of "weights" for students that choose to challenge themselves we can make sure that is reflected in the student's overall GPA which will also make sure we are NOT disadvantaging students in scholarship applications, etc.  We can even go so far as to still calculate "class rank" using these same metrics if we choose to do so.  Those details, however have not been worked out YET.  We are still very much in the process of creating a basic foundation for HS students grading systems with teachers at the High School level.  Once that work is complete we will then move on to some of these other issues.  Still much work to do - but while we're doing it - please know that we aren't changing the overall structure of grades for students yet.  Currently we are translating between the new system to the old system so we don't do any harm to students as we move forward.

Whitney's Second Question is this:  Will there be concessions made to account for the lack of consistency between teachers and a general lack of understanding of how to grade during the implementation process?

Whitney, another GREAT QUESTION.  First, let me say that ultimately one of the big benefits of a   PBE system is that we get rid of many of the "unknowns" of the old traditional model where a grade of a 90 in one teachers' English I class could mean a very different thing than that same grade in another English I teacher's class!  In a PBE system, the key is students demonstrating skills at the proficient level and it is very clearly articulated to students, parents, and teachers what that means - thereby reducing much of the discrepancies in the old traditional system where grades were much more subjective.  So, overall, in a PBE system this issue of consistency should be removed.  Now, there is a second question in there which I think I addressed earlier, but let me reiterate.  The second question is around whether or not we will be careful not to "harm" students while teachers are learning about this system.  Again, right now we haven't changed the overall structure of our grades.  Teachers are still using 100 point scales and reporting based upon that, in an effort to make sure we have our collective "ducks in a row" before we make sweeping changes to how we grade.  We have spent the past year or so learning about the system.  We are spending the remainder of this year working with staff to create a common grading structure and then we will work over the course of next year to figure out things like athletic eligibility, honor roll, transcripts, etc.

Now, I've spent a lot of time talking about HS here.  Please know that our students in grades K-5 are currently using a 1-4 scale, and HAVE BEEN FOR MANY YEARS.  Our Middle School students have gone through a transition year this year where teachers were converting from a 1-4 scale to report out on 100 point scale and next year they will move to reporting out solely on the 1-4 scale.  High School is spending this year creating common grading practices and then next year they'll begin to tackle the difficult questions of athletic eligibility, honor roll, transcripts, etc.  In the meantime, our Board of Directors is working with administration and staff to pass policies that help to define the direction our district is moving towards and communicating that to parents.  Overall, we are trying to take these changes relatively slow so as to make sure we are providing the needed professional development and time to teachers to create the foundations for success in this new system, and to ensure we are working to communicate these changes effectively to students and parents as we move along.

I think that addresses your overall questions Whitney.  If not - PLEASE add comments below, and encourage other parents to do the same and I will attempt to answer them.  I'm also trying to find better ways to communicate with parents regarding questions - so if parents have any ideas on how to do this more effectively I'd like to hear your ideas!  So far, we've tried public meetings, surveys, creation of parent advisory groups, website postings, open houses, this blog, and other communications methods (newsletters, etc) all with pockets of success, but we need more.  There is a lot of misinformation out there, and I'd like to do a better job at getting out the accurate information so any help on that front would be greatly appreciated!  THANK YOU!

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Transparency Is Just One Key To A Successful PBE System

Our Mission/Vision says that:  "Our Proficiency-based system makes clear what students must demonstrate to show mastery.  Learning targets are clear, easily accessible and diversely assessed." (you can see the whole mission/vision by going to our website at:

One of the key components of our PBE system then, is transparency or the ability to make learning targets and overall learning expectations clear to all stakeholders.  To RSU 3 - Transparency means that we think of our learners as partners in their own education.  Our system is created to make sure students know exactly what is expected of them and why.  We believe that by including our learners in the process of developing and understanding their own learning, they are naturally more engaged in the process, more engaged in their learning tasks and more successful as learners.

In the traditional model of education (the one you and I participated in) learners were thought of as "empty vessels" that needed to be "filled" by the knowledge of the adults in charge.  In the past, this system served the purpose of creating knowledgeable individuals who followed orders and looked to their leaders for answers to the "big problems".  Our industrial, manufacturing based society didn't need a lot of creative thinkers and problem solvers.  It needed a few, but it needed more "skilled workers" who were highly skilled at one thing, listened to the directions of their bosses, and followed them.  This wasn't "bad" or "good" - it was what was needed at the time.

Today's needed 21st Century skills are the opposite.  In today's workforce we need many more creative and innovative thinkers who work together to solve complex problems.  Today's workforce must have solid "soft skills" such as an effective communicators, creative problem solvers, and abilities to collaborate with other members of their team (sound familiar - it should - its the Guiding Principles of Maine's Learning Results).  In a world where you can "google" anything. .. having factual knowledge stored in your head isn't as important as it once was.  Instead, being able to filter through massive amounts of information, identify problems, and work collaboratively with others to solve them are the skills that our students need in order to be successful.

Understanding this new reality then, we must re-think our educational paradigms.  Where students once were "empty vessels" to be filled with factual knowledge and sent on their way - now students must learn how to learn, how to change, how to identify problems and how to work with others to solve them.  They must learn to identify the resources at their disposal quickly and then figure out ways to use those resources to meet their needs.  The 21st Century is no longer the world for the complacent learner, who sits quietly in their seats, does their homework, and never questions their teachers.  The 21st Century is a place where our students must learn to learn quickly, to adapt, and to change.  They must be a part of the conversation about their own learning vs. the object of it.

RSU 3's PBE system is built in such a way as to involve the learner in their learning.  It is built to be transparent and clear to the students and to their parents.  We aren't keeping any secrets.  There is no longer just "one answer" to any problem and it is no longer "found in the back of the book."  As we all know from experience, life just doesn't work that way, especially now.  Students need to understand how their learning progresses building upon foundational skills to more complex skills.  Students need to understand how these skills can translate from one content area to another and how they are related to developing problem solving skills, communication skills, and collaboration skills.  Students must be brought into the secret that learning doesn't occur in isolation, one content area never interacting with another.  Math is no longer to be learned only during "math class".  It can be learned during English, or during Music, or while at home helping one's parents with their food shopping budget!

Our EDUCATE software system is currently in its infancy of use here in RSU 3.  We have just begun to unlock its potential, but the ultimate goal is that this software system will become one tool for transparency.  Students will be able to log in and see their learning progressions and to work with their teachers to map out their own best learning pathways.  Teachers will be able to log in and see each student's learning progressions and use that information to coach, advise, and challenge them to meet their maximum learning potential.  Parents will be able to log in and see exactly what their students are learning in real time and communicate with their children's teachers with questions they might have.  All stakeholders will know what was learned, what is being learned, and what comes next all while understanding why they are learning it!

Transparency in RSU 3 is making clear that students are not the blueberries to be processed in our system, or the peg to be sanded and moved on.  Students in RSU 3 are to be real partners in their learning, supported by caring adults who embrace and encourage students and work to ensure each student is learning to their fullest potential and able to ultimately meet whatever goals they make for themselves moving forward.  In RSU 3, Transparency is partnership - at least that's the vision we are moving towards!