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!


  1. From Whitney Aitken:

    I need to figure out my log in so I can respond.

    Very good information, however I think there are more teachers than you realize using the PBE grading system (experimenting as you put it) and others who are not giving proper recognition to those working at the highest level. Again, mastering level 3 and going forward to work on level 4 should relate to a higher grade on that standard than a student who doesn't attempt level 4 for whatever reason. I think teachers are unsure what to use in that case. Receiving the same grade is not helpful to either and it doesn't show that while the level 4 student may not have mastered level 4, they certainly worked towards it and worked at a higher level than the one who didn't attempt it at all. Make sense? Currently they are both recieving the same grade, an 85, as both mastered the level 3 standard. I am afraid because of that in particular these kids will be harmed in this transition. You are pretty clear there is a lot of work to do to figure out all of the kinks and in translating from traditional to PBE. Until they do kids could be at risk for negative consequences. My fear regarding GPA, class rank and college admissions still exist in the short term. I am still not sold on this process and transition. I do have a greater understanding now and can appreciate the PBE system from your back story however. My older son was almost the exact student. He would learn what he needed to in order to get by, but when he entered college he was in for a rude awakening!!

  2. Thanks for the follow up Comment Whitney. I believe you and I are on the same page here. The intent is that once the High School has figured on what it wants to do for scoring - that it links directly to the level of learning so that if a student achieves a more challenging level of rigor (or a score 4) that that somehow be "weighted" more highly than a student who just does the minimal score 3.

    The transition is difficult, and I wouldn't argue that I believe some teachers are doing things one way while another group are scoring in other ways. Please know the goal of this spring is to bring the consistency to the conversation you are asking for. Our students deserve nothing less.

    Now, in terms of a GPA or a transcript - what is ultimately seen by colleges and universities will not look significantly different than what is seen now. Please know we are very aware of the need to ensure that no student's dreams of postsecondary education (whether that be military, community college, or an ivy league college) are jeopardized by this transition. What we hope is that by moving to PBE, what the colleges see will actually mean MORE than what it does now when they have no idea what is behind the GPA score that could mean very different things for student skills depending upon where they graduated from.

    I just met with 30 students (mostly freshman and sophomores) today. .. they were very articulate about their concerns as well. Please know we are working to address them! I encourage you to reach out to Mrs. Towle and your child's teachers to keep tabs on how we move forward. Stay involved in the conversation. .. and I'm very sure it will wind up in a better system where more than a mere 50% of our students graduate with basic proficiencies in Math, reading, and Science! Our goal is 100%! :)

  3. Where is it stated clearly WHAT is required for graduation now. Use to be 4 eng, 3 history, etc. What is it now? What does a student do when they are stuck on a standard? Is there ever a time where you say enough, lets move on? In the past if the student had a bad term you could move on and try to do better the next term to finally get your credit. Now the class moves on and the teacher continues to assign new stuff but when your STUCK how do you ever catch up? Above you mention that an 85 is a standard 3 however not all teachers are going by this. I have seen a 3 averaged in as a 33.33, a 3.1 as a 77.5 and a 3.4 as an 85 on infinite campus. (All by the same teacher) You use to be able to look at a graded paper and see that there were 10 questions and that meant each answer was worth 10 points. Ok 5 wrong you bombed and need to redo. NOw I see papers returned with 10 questions 2 wrong and the student is expected to redo it until they are all right (Use to be a 100) and THEN they get a 3 which is a 85???? Where is the consistency in that? I look forward to a better system where more than 50% graduate with the basic in PBE but fear my child will be long gone by then and was only one of the experiments along the way. I have had a meeting with the principle and teacher and was told I was wrong, didn't understand (Yeah I know I don't) and then invited to attend a meeting in feb to help me understand this better. That was a lot of help. Sorry to sound so negative about this but very frustrated with everyone just brushing you off with this is new but we are working on it. What about the kids in the middle of this experiment/process.

  4. Good morning Sirena, I hope that you are able to get out and enjoy some good old fashioned Maine winter with all this snow! We got 15+ inches in the Greenville area - snowmobilers are just drooling!

    Once again, you have some excellent questions Sirena that I am going to attempt to specifically address below in my comments. Please let me know if I don't directly answer all your questions, or if my answers produce more questions (which is often the case). Here goes:

    Your first question was "Where is it stated clearly what is required for graduation now . . . used to be 4 english, 3 history, etc. what is it now?" The answer to that question is to be found in School Board Policy IKF: Graduation Requirements. You can find a copy of this policy by going on the district's website ( and then clicking on the "District Policies" link on the left side of the page. Once you get to the policy page - this policy code begins with an "I" so you can find it in the "I" section. What you will find when you click on that is the existing policy that was passed back in 2003 when it was last revised. At this point we are still operating under the old policy.

    Now, I will be clear in that the School Board's Policy Committee and Administration and staff are currently working on a re-write of Policy IKF that will incorporate our new PBE system and meet the requirements of LD 1422, the Maine Statute that requires students beginning in the class of 2018 to meet the standards outlined in Maine's learning results via a Proficiency Based Diploma system. Now there are lots of ways this can happen. The Board could choose to stick with a type of "credits-based system" where we align our Measurement Topics (AKA standards) to the existing courses we offer and by passing a course and demonstrating proficiency a "credit" is awarded or it could try to move away from the credit based system entirely and allow students to move through progressions of learning until they've demonstrated proficiency at the Measurement Topics we've identified as "essential" to graduate from MVHS. Either way, students will need to demonstrate proficiency in Measurement Topics, whether we translate that to the credit system or not.

  5. Your next question was "What does a student do when they are stuck on a standard? Another EXCELLENT question! So, it is probably easier to answer this question by explaining what we DO NOT DO. What we don't do is just leave a student to struggle and struggle and struggle and bang their heads up against the proverbial wall until they throw their hands up in frustration and give up. That's what we DO NOT do.

    What we DO DO is that we create a system that is flexible in lots of different ways that will allow a student to choose how they learn something, how they demonstrate that they've learned something, and how to move from one learning progression to another in a way that makes sense. For example. Let's say a student is working on a learning target associated with Geometry. First, a student who is a "hands-on" learner would have a choice to learn about this target by building something, or by manipulating shapes digitally, etc. in such a way that meets their learning needs whereas in the traditional model, a teacher would give you a page in a book, review it orally, and then you'd have to figure it out in a paper and pencil format. Now, maybe this works for some students - but it doesn't work for all students, so we're going to create a system that allows students that choice and teachers work with students understanding each learner so they can help navigate learning in a way that makes sense for the student.

    Next, students get a chance to choose how best to demonstrate their understanding of the learning target. Again, in Geometry. .. maybe the student builds a model to show that they understand the concept of angles or maybe they develop a series of models demonstrating their understanding of volume, etc. Or a student can take a paper/pencil test, or they can choose to develop a computer model, etc. etc. As long as the student is able to demonstrate their understanding of the learning, then that will work and it is up to the teacher to provide the ongoing feedback to students necessary to help guide them in this process.

    Now, let's say a student has chosen how they'd like to learn a skill, and they are still struggling and simply can't figure it out for whatever reason. Well, as has always been the case - this is when the teacher needs to step it up. .. they need to find out what is going on with this student. What key concept are they missing? What is the challenge that this student faces? The teacher works to provide intense, personal instruction to the student to help them in their understandings. If for some reason taht still doesn't work, then we would utilize existing remediation such as the RTI process. Additionally, please understand that a student that is stuck on one learning target in Math for example, doesn't just sit idle in frustration. If a teacher can't provide help and the student is still frustrated, then the system we are creating will allow the student to maybe switch over to something else for a period of time and focus on that and come back to the other learning later.

  6. Maybe the student just needs one on one help from the teacher (just like in our traditional system), or maybe the student just needs a little "time out" to move on to something else and come back to that piece? Regardless, the system will be built to allow for the most personalized instruction possible so that we can insure student success.

    One thing that is important to remember is that the system itself isn't built upon the traditional model where one teacher was standing up in front of a class of 25 students and expecting all the students to be learning the same things at the same pace. That's what we're trying to get away from. There isn't any "catching up" to the class as there was before. There is only ensuring that each individual student is learning at their own "maximum pace". Ultimately, it is the learner (with the help of their parents/guardians) and the teacher, working together that makes sure this occurs.

  7. Your next series of questions deal with grading. Please know that at this point, the High school has not settled in on what they want to use for a grading process/scale yet. So when I used the example above of an 85 being a 3 - it is just that - an example. There are multiple ways to create conversion charts between a 1-4 scoring system and a 100 point scale that could be used, and there are also systems that do away entirely with the 100 point scale and simply use the 1-4 GPA scale that so many collages and universities are familiar with. Again, Mt. View High School is working on figuring this out as we speak and we hope to have this prepared and ready for parents and students for the fall of 2014. If, for some reason we do not - we will stick with the 100 point scale we've always used until we can transition to whatever the next system will be.

    What you are experiencing with the 3 being averaged as a 77.5, etc. that you described above is some of the difficulty in trying to use a system (Infinite Campus) that was not built to operate in a standards based environment, which is why we are slowly moving towards the use of EDUCATE for our grading software in the future.

    Now the second part of your question was a particularly insightful one. The one where you describe that you used to be able to see a 10 question quiz and know you had to get 7 of the problems right in order to get a 70. .. very perceptive on your part to see that as an issue. Here's the key difference between the "old" 10 question quiz and the new one. .. on the new 10 question quiz, students are expected to use the "quiz" or "test" or "project" ,etc to demonstrate they have mastered a particular standard - in other words that they have achieved a scale 3 (proficient) understanding of their learning, whatever that learning is for this quiz. That means they if this quiz is a summative test, the students have to get them all "right" in some fashion. Now, what the big difference is that in a PBE system, everything that is "graded" is not necessarily used to determine proficiency. Students and teachers may do many things that are "formative" in nature. So, for example, a student may take a quick quiz to check where they are in their understanding of a topic so that the teacher can help meet them at their learning level and nudge them to where they need to be without having to "waste" a lot of time guessing what students do or do not already know. Additionally, a student that is having difficulty in one area might be asked to do a formative assessment to assist the teacher in understanding more specifically where their challenge in learning lies. These kids of formative assessments allow more targeted instruction so that neither students nor teachers are wasting time trying to teach or learn materials that is either too easy or too hard for students. Formative assessments help a teacher to help the learner navigate where they are specifically in their learning and what it will take to move forward to meet overall proficiency.

  8. Serena, please know that as a parent myself, I thoroughly understand the fear that you have regarding your child being used as an "experiment" as we move towards the creation of a better system. The traditional system in RSU 3 has not met the needs of all of our learners. In fact, looking at our overall patterns of achievement data - we have failed far more than we have fully served. To me, this is why we HAVE TO MOVE FORWARD. As painful as change is, we have to create a system that meets the needs of more than 50% of our student population in key content areas such as reading and math. Please know that as we move forward we are paying very close attention to trying to make sure we "do no harm" to those that have been served well in our traditional system, while at the same time working to bring up those that have not been served. In our new PBE system, we are opening up more and more avenues for our students to accelerate their learning. We are providing internships and dual enrollments for college courses more than we ever have. We are providing ways in which students that want to excel CAN EXCEL and to heights they may never have though possible - while at the same time, we are working to make sure that a diploma from MVHS actually MEANS SOMETHING. It means that you have met standards in key areas of learning and math and in collaboration and critical thinking, and that you are ready to move on to achieve your postsecondary goals and to become a successful citizen. No longer can we accept graduating students from MVHS who can only read at a 4th grade level, or who can't do basic computation in math. The world has changed, and we can't expect students to be able to survive without these basic competencies. Now, in a PBE system, we will will also strive to meet the needs of ALL our learners! We will continue to meet the needs of our students who excel and we will do that better than we ever have before, but we also ensure that EVERY STUDENT that graduates from MVHS will be able to make their own choices for how they wish to move forward into the world without having those choices so often already made for them because of a poor educational system.

    That's my dream. I know as a parent - you share that dream as well for your own children. I am very sure that together we can make it happen for ALL CHILDREN! Thanks Serena for your questions. .. keep em coming! I hope this helped to clarify some things for you. . . if not - keep asking those questions! :)