Sixth-graders now are taking electives, using lockers, dressing out for gym and doing plenty of other things at school to prepare them for an eventual transition to high school.
But they’re keeping their standards-based grading system, and that has some parents and teachers worried.
“My students don’t know what they’re doing,” said Jill Patton, whose daughter this year entered sixth-grade in the Lawrence school district after elementary school at Corpus Christi Catholic School, where traditional letter grades were the norm. “They do not know what is expected in the classroom.”
While sixth-graders in the district still will receive letter grades — just as they would have last year in elementary school — they also will receive grades of E, S, M or T on more than a dozen categories spanning knowledge and learner behaviors, also just as they would have last year.
It’s just that this year all sixth-graders are in middle schools, and that means multiple classes, multiple teachers and multiple changes for students, parents and teachers grappling with a district that has been “reconfigured for student success.”
And parents such as Patton took their concerns Monday night to the Lawrence school board, hoping to halt the introduction of standards-based grading into middle schools amid complaints of a lack of teacher training, absence of parental input and plenty of worries about student motivation.
“We do not want to be the first class of trial and error,” said Patton, who has worked as an elementary teacher. “We are asking you to stop this right now and save this school year and go back, retrain, start over, get the parents on board, get the students on board, (and) get the teachers on board.
“We are floating and floundering, and that is not what Lawrence USD 497 is known for.”
Board members listened as several parents and one district teacher made their way to the microphone, outlining a series of complaints about notification and implementation and professional development and research and other shortcomings of the process.
Their comments came after Kim Bodensteiner, the district’s chief academic officer, had explained that the grading system had been in the district for 10 years at the elementary level, had been planned to remain with sixth-graders as that grade level moved up into middle school, and that teachers had been informed of the grading program during meetings in both February and May.
Despite all that, however, she conceded that “misconceptions” had made their way into the mainstream.
“I apologize to the parents and to the board,” she said.
In the end, board members did not make any decisions about the grading system, the one supported by administrators for giving parents and students more information about actual knowledge and learner behaviors than could be contained in a single letter grade. From “E” for “excels” to “T” for “targeted for growth,” students receive markers in conjunction with state assessments on skills and the behaviors — turning in homework on time, being prepared for class, etc. — needed to succeed in school.
Mike Orozco, who has a first-grader and a third-grader at Langston Hughes School, told board members he liked the idea of kids picking up collaborative skills and learning to work with people. Those are the kinds of skills students will need to succeed in the business world, he said.
“Those are all things that are very important to us,” said Orozco, US Bank’s regional president for Kansas, northwest Missouri and southwest Iowa. “But the other things that we look for are kids that are overachievers, that have high, demonstrated track records of success.”
Standards-based grading sounds like “just another example of political correctness run amok,” he said, “a way to standardize performance and really getting away from helping kids do the best that they can and try to excel.”
And if the district follows through with plans for adding such grading in seventh- and eighth-grades — an idea suggested by administrators earlier this year but not committed to Monday night — students might be in for a surprise come high school, Orozco said.
“I’m really concerned about preparing our children for what is a very competitive world,” he said.
Board members didn’t make any moves to change the current process, or to seek further information, or to schedule a future date to review the issue again, although they do intend to keep their eyes on the process as it moves through implementation with the end of the first quarter next month.
But the parents who showed up Monday aren’t done yet.
“We feel like we’re not done,” Patton said out in the lobby, comparing notes with other parents. “We’re going to regroup, and we’re going to be back.”