Parents, teachers voice concerns regarding standards-based grading

Megan King, parent of a sixth-grader at Southwest Middle School who helped organize a petition opposing standards-based grading, expresses her frustration with the Lawrence school district’s computer system used by teachers and accessible by parents for tracking students’ progress. She was among 70 parents, teachers, administrators, school board members and others attending a “Grading for Learning” informational forum Tuesday at Southwest.

Parents concerned about the use of standards-based grading in Lawrence middle schools took their questions, concerns and frustrations directly to the folks in charge Tuesday night.

Now the opponents are looking for changes, with many seeking a system based solely on traditional letter grades in sixth grade rather than the combination retained for use this academic year.

“The two don’t mesh,” said Megan King, who had draped a “Stop Standards Based Grading” banner on her back fence facing Inverness Drive, a major route to nearby Southwest Middle School. “They’re different playing fields. One is totally different than the other, and one cannot be layered on top of the other.”

King joined more than 70 parents, teachers, administrators, school board members and others attending a “Grading for Learning” informational forum Tuesday in the cafeteria at Southwest, 2411 Inverness Drive.

A second forum will be conducted from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. today at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, 1400 Mass.

District officials scheduled the forums after facing criticism from dozens of parents during two separate board meetings, then addressing several small groups at various schools and receiving more than 200 signatures on an online petition calling for standards-based grading to be dropped from middle schools.

Since 2003, standards-based grades — marks tied to state standards for each subject, plus “learner behaviors” such as being prepared for class and turning in assignments on time — have been in elementary schools, which up until last year had included sixth-graders. Last year’s sixth-graders also received traditional letter grades: A, B, C, D or F.

It’s the same thing this year, except that sixth-graders now are in middle schools, where they are taking more classes and with different teachers. Sixth-graders still receive standards-based grades — “S” for successfully meeting standards, “M” for making progress, “T” for being targeted for growth and “E” for excelling consistently — and still receive a letter grade in each subject area.

“Nothing has changed,” said Mark Bradford, school board president, during the forum.

“That’s illogical, to say that nothing’s changed,” said Steve Patton, who has a sixth-grader at Southwest and has criticized the grading system during previous board meetings. “Everything’s changed. The buildings changed. The teachers have changed. The time to teach has changed. The way the school is conducted has changed.

“Everything has changed.”

Whether the grading system itself will change will be up to board members, who have agreed to consider the issue during an upcoming board meeting, likely in December or January.

District administrators maintain that standards-based grades give parents more information about a student’s knowledge and learner behaviors than a traditional letter grade can.

Possible problems

Opponents argue that standards-based grades lead to several problems:

• Teachers don’t have enough time to properly issue such grades.

• An “S” grade does not offer proper motivation for kids, especially those who could strive to go from a B to an A. “The ‘S’ doesn’t give us any information,” said Scott Myers, a Southwest • parent who compiled the online petition.

• Issuing two sets of grades is confusing, both for parents and students.

• The Skyward computer system used by teachers and accessible to parents — all to help track students’ assignments, test scores and other work — isn’t properly equipped to effectively communicate what parents need to know to help their students succeed.

Administrators already have responded to some of the concerns by granting teachers more time to issue standards-based grades, and by reducing — with teacher input — the number of mandatory standards to be graded for each report card. The district also has adjusted information on Skyward and has convened committees of teachers from each of the district’s four middle schools to work on ways to make improvements both for teachers and parents.

After the forum, board member Rick Ingram said that he would consider including parents on such committees or other committees related to standards-based grading.

“These are legitimate concerns, and there is a lot of common ground,” said Ingram, who attended the forum along with all of the other board members except Randy Masten, who plans to attend tonight’s session at Liberty Memorial Central. “These parents are involved, and they really care. These are the people you want to have participating on a committee.”

Several board members noted that many of the concerns raised Tuesday night by parents — who want better communication, more consistency and increased student motivation — could be applied to both standards-based grades and traditional letter grades.

“What we’re really talking about are the details,” said Vanessa Sanburn, another board member.

Bradford said that the board soon would decide whether to continue with the combination of standards-based grading and traditional letter grades for sixth-graders or to drop the standards-based marks at that level and rely instead only on traditional A, B, C, D and F grades going forward.

Once it’s decided, he said, that will be it: Teachers must utilize whatever system is in place, even as people continue to work on improvements.

“We have to move on,” he said.