Standards: Enhancing Our Schools
Camden — This is my third installment to help our local community understand the shift to Common Core Standards and a standards-based educational system. As I previously stated, these shifts are happening at the national and state level, affecting every public school in the state of Maine.
There is now a law in Maine that requires high school students to earn a “Proficiency Based Diploma” in order to graduate. That law goes into affect for students graduating in 2018. Fortunately, the state has left quite a bit of leeway to school districts to interpret the law and implement a system that works locally. In fact, we intend to request a 2-year waiver for the diploma requirement in order to give our schools, particularly the high school, the time to plan and implement a system that is thoughtful and truly works to improve the education we are offering students.
We have some experience locally, as all of the sending schools to Camden Hills Regional High School have moved toward standards-based systems. As an example, Camden-Rockport Middle School moved to a standards-based system a few years ago after several years of planning. This transition included a focus on maintaining and strengthening the great programs that already existed while implementing new ideas that would better support areas of relative weakness. We improved school climate, academics, and intervention. Teachers more thoughtfully aligned their instruction and assessment to the daily learning targets. We changed our grading practices to more accurately reflect student learning. We accommodated individual student needs and interests by adding Independent study courses and offering more flexibility.
Some people fear this transition, assuming the worst (e.g. schools becoming test prep factories). But, instead, CRMS became stronger and is nothing like a test prep center. We are very lucky to have administrators, teachers, board members, and a community that values the intangibles – the relationships between teachers and students, the quality of grit when the going gets tough, the thrill of winning a “Gleesando” competition, the importance of giving back, the lessons embedded in the 100th day celebration, and the perspective-widening that happens through cross-cultural exchange.
Do we collect some standardized test data? Sure. It would be crazy not to. After all, we are an institution set up for learning and it is important to be able to measure academic progress. In fact, administrators just met to review the amount of standardized testing in SAD28 and chose to eliminate Fall NWEA tests. We don’t overemphasize the role of testing. We know that tests don’t capture all the important learning that takes place in a school or begin to measure everything we value. We judge ourselves and the outside world judges us on so much more – our athletic prowess, our level of sportsmanship, our musical talent, our theater productions, our ability for so many students to find a niche and feel at home in our schools. None of these things will be lost as we move toward a system that bases academic learning on demonstrated proficiency.
There is a lot of concern about the potential implications for grading within this system. Most systems that move to a standards based system use a 1 – 4 grading scale, where 1 means a student does not meet a standard, a 2 means s/he partially meets the standard, a 3 means s/he meets, and a 4 means s/he exceeded the standards by going beyond what was explicitly taught to make higher level connections. Many schools use intervals between the whole numbers as well.
However, this does not have to be the case. Again, the state is not dictating the grading scale. What they are saying is that the grading scale needs to be aligned to proficiency. Assessments need to be designed, and scored accordingly, to measure whether a student meets a standard. In our district, the K-8 schools use a scale of 1 – 4, but the question of what scale the high school will use remains to be determined. We know that regardless of the grading scale, we can still determine Grade Point Average (GPA), valedictorian, top 10 percent, etc.
A key question that looms in the minds of many parents is the implications of a proficiency-based diploma on college admissions, particularly if a 1 – 4 scale is used. Parents wonder if it would hinder their child’s chances of college acceptance, particularly at the more competitive colleges. The state anticipated this question and worked with the New England Schools Consortium to create a compact that has been signed by more than 45 New England colleges and universities endorsing a proficiency-based educational system. (http://mainedoenews.net/2013/11/13/colleges-commit-to-accepting-proficiency-based-diploma/)
However, neither Ivies nor NESCAC schools appear on that list. To answer that question for myself, I contacted the Dean of Admissions at Bowdoin, our regional Admissions officer at Colby, and the Maine regional Admissions Officers at Middlebury and Dartmouth to investigate the implications of a proficiency-based diploma on college admissions (assuming a 1 – 4 scale). Every admissions officer was kind enough to respond, either via phone or email, and the answer was the same across the board. It will not hinder admissions chances at all, or make it any more difficult to review an application from a Maine student. They review transcripts with hundreds of different grading systems from around the world, and some with none at all. For every one of those transcripts, what is important is the explanation and school profile that comes with it, just like the expectation now. They all mentioned that they generally know the schools’ reputation, built in part by former students’ success at their college, and a different type of diploma won’t change that. It is nice to know that isn’t an obstacle in our path!
There is some backlash around the state and country regarding Common Core and the standards-based education reform efforts. Know that in our districts, the state mandated moves in this direction will translate into a thoughtful adjustment to a more rigorous curriculum and higher learning expectations without losing sight of our current strengths. There are highly effective veteran teachers at CRMS who feel the move to standards based grading has made them better teachers. They are more in tune with student learning and are better able to tailor instruction to meet student needs. As long as we keep our eye on improving student learning and high quality teaching, this journey will enhance the already strong schools we have.
Maria Libby is assistant superintendent in Five Town Community School District and Maine School Administrative District 28.