First Bell: ‘Informational discussions’ ahead for standards-based grading in Lawrence school district

Parents, teachers and others interested in — or perturbed by — the use of standards-based grading in Lawrence middle schools are welcome to attend informational forums this week.

The forums, called Grading for Learning, are set for 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday. Each are expected to follow the same format, but be available at different locations so that as many people as possible can get a chance to attend one that fits their schedules:

• Tuesday: Southwest Middle School, 2511 Inverness.

• Wednesday: Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, 1400 Mass.

The district describes the forums as “informational discussions,” offering formats for attendees to listen to explanations regarding standards-based grading, and to share their own opinions about what works or doesn’t work.

Standards-based grades have been in use in elementary schools for years, and assign students marks based upon their performance related to various standards set by the state. The marks:

• S: Successfully meets standard.

• M: Making progress.

• T: Targeted for growth.

• E: Excels consistently.

Officials say such grades focus on what students are learning, the skills they’re picking up and the learning behaviors they’re employing along the way, rather than simply averaging scores on tests, homework and other assignments and then using those numbers to assign traditional letter grades.

Since the beginning of the school year — when the district told parents that it was adjusting grading procedures for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders — the topic has generated intense opposition from a group of parents who say that the use of standards-based grading is inappropriate for sixth-graders. Parents and teachers opposing standards-based grading contend the grading system:

• Does not give students or parents the information they need to determine how students are doing on daily assignments, quizzes and tests.

• Has reduced the utility of the district’s Skyward computer system, which parents of elementary students previously had used to follow students’ progress and performance.

• Fails to motivate students to strive for better grades, given that achieving an “S” — for “Successfully meets standards” — is the goal students are instructed to meet.

• Overburdens teachers, ones now required to use standards-based grading in addition to issuing A, B, C, D and F letter grades.

• Requires middle schools to maintain two different grading systems: a standards-based model for sixth grade, then traditional letter grades for grades seven and eight.

Parents previously have taken their case to the Lawrence school board, and more than 200 people have signed on to an online petition outlining their criticisms. The board has heard calls for abandoning the standards-based system for this year.

The district has responded by making changes to Skyward, to make some information available to parents earlier than expected. The district also has reduced the number of standards to be graded for sixth-graders, to help lessen the load on teachers issuing standards-based marks. District officials also have met with various groups and attended several meetings in an effort to help explain the system to people with questions and concerns.

The upcoming “informational discussions” are next.

Each event will be expected to include an introduction from Rick Doll, district superintendent, and/or Angelique Kobler, the district’s director of curriculum and instruction, plus explanations from a teacher or teachers about what standards-based grading is, and what the system does (the district also provides some background and other information online).

Each event also will be expected to include small-group discussions, for participants to ask questions and receive answers.

The district not only will be providing information but also collecting input during the discussions, said Julie Boyle, the district’s director of communications.

Mark Bradford, president of the school board, has indicated that the issue would be scheduled for a future meeting of the school board.