A parent's perspective on standards-based education
Maria Libby’s recent columns and Faith Vautour’s March 21 response clearly and articulately present the case for, and the challenges of, implementing standards-based education in MSAD 28/Five Town CSD, from the viewpoints of an administration doing its best to navigate changing requirements and teachers doing their utmost to maintain academic excellence.
From this parent’s perspective, standards-based education and grading may well be changes from which our entire educational system will benefit greatly. As with many ambitious initiatives, however, theory and practice are two different things. CRMS’ experiment has had its glitches, and ultimately is doing little to correct – indeed is sometimes worsening – the very inconsistencies it claims to fix.
Implementing academic standards seems like a no-brainer, as does requiring students to demonstrate clearly-defined proficiencies before advancing. As Ms. Vautour points out, these concepts are not new to the district, and for the most part they work quite well.
The four-point grading system which was implemented at CRMS a few years ago also seems pretty straightforward on the surface: each student is assessed by whether or not she has met grade-level proficiency (which earns him/her a 3 on the four-point scale). This system is intended to minimize the subjectivity inherent in traditional grading methods and ensure that all students are measured the same way, against the same criteria.
As Ms. Libby stated in her October 13 column, under the standards-based ideal, “time is the variable.” In theory, regardless of whether a student learns quickly or slowly, the outcome – proficiency – is the constant.
In practice, however, time is most assuredly not a variable. There is only so much one teacher can do with 22 or 23 individual learning timelines when the academic year still ends every June. CRMS still houses fifth through eighth grades, and with very few exceptions, students pass through its halls in exactly four years. Regardless of whether they have earned 1s or 4s during that time, at the end of it they are decanted onto the CHRHS portico as newly-minted freshmen ready (or not) for four years of high school.
Of particular concern is Ms. Libby’s assertion that CRMS accommodates “individual student needs by adding independent study courses and offering more flexibility.” To the contrary, there seems to be little willingness on the part of the administration to allow individualized instruction. In some cases, teachers who assigned advanced work to faster-moving students were actively discouraged from deviating from the standard curriculum and required, instead, to hold the entire classroom to the same content at the same pace.
And the four-point grading system, it turns out, can be just as subjective as letter grades, and much more ambiguous. For example:
- Student A is in a traditional math class and finds it challenging, but with hard work, extra time and additional support from the teacher, he’s achieving grade-level proficiency and earning a 3.
- Student B is in the same class. He quickly masters the material so he arrives at a 3 fairly easily, but he can’t necessarily move on to new topics because the teacher is busy working with Student A.
- Student C is in the academically demanding Horizons math class where the bar is set much higher. If he’s meeting expectations, he also receives a 3. In his case, though, the expectations are much more rigorous.
In no way does that 3 – applied fairly and consistently in three different scenarios – reflect the reality of each student’s level of academic accomplishment, motivation or potential. While the traditional letter-grade method may be imperfect, it did have the advantage of offering a reasonably accurate measurement of each student’s achievement in real time.
The bottom line is this: we are continually asking students and teachers to do more, and do it better, within the same time frame. Without a larger conversation and a broader reconsideration of how education is delivered, even the best benchmarking and assessment tools will only scratch the surface of truly improving educational outcomes. We parents welcome this dialogue.
Rebekah Woodworth is the parent of an eighth-grader at CRMS and a junior at CHRHS. She lives in Rockport.