First Bell: Standards-based grading holding at sixth-grade level; board president prepares to ‘move on’; teacher describes ‘E’ work

The Lawrence school district’s “informational discussion” Tuesday regarding standards-based grading in middle schools included plenty of — you guessed it — information, both during formal presentations and the responses they generated.

Here are three items folks may find of interest:

First: Don’t expect standards-based grading to expand beyond sixth grade, at least not anytime soon.

Kim Bodensteiner, the district’s chief academic officer, assured attendees during Tuesday’s forum at Southwest Middle School that she would not soon recommend extending the use of standards-based grading to other grade levels.

“There are some changes coming in the standards from the state,” Bodensteiner said. “And so I would not recommend that we do anything different at (grades) seven and eight, certainly not next year — maybe not for at least two years — because I would like to be sure that we know what those changes in standards are going to look like. And that’s not going to happen for two or three years.”

A parent raised the issue during the forum, expressing her concerns that the grading system — one that is tied to state standards, with teachers awards an “S” for successfully meeting a standard, an “M” for making progress, a “T” for being targeted for growth, or an “E” for excelling consistently — could inch up into higher grade levels.

The parent clearly doesn’t want that, and had posed a direct question: “Can you guarantee us it will not go 7 through 12?”

Bodensteiner’s response: “I don’t know that I can guarantee anything. …

“There are people who have talked to me who are wishing we did have standards(-based grading) up in higher grades. Some people would like to see more specific feedback for students beyond just the letter grade, even in our high school classes.

“We have not had any formal discussions about doing anything in high school. There has been some discussion about what this should look like in middle school.”

The parent’s response: “I still don’t understand why we’re not just leaving it in elementary, and leave well enough alone?”

Bodensteiner: “I will not be making any recommendation to increase anything. …”

Parent: “Will it be sprung on us, the way this was?”

Bodensteiner: “I’m certainly not interested in doing this again,” she said, referring to the district having to conduct informational forums to communicate. (FYI: A second forum is set for 7 p.m. today at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School, 1400 Mass.)

Bodensteiner’s line drew a bit of laughter from the members of the audience, some of whom had came to the forum after having previously attended school board meetings to express their concerns, having signed an online petition to document their concerns, and having scheduled individual and group meetings with administrators and school board members to outline their concerns and make suggestions about how to change a system they clearly regard as substandard.

Bodensteiner, for her part, noted that when the district started planning for the reconfiguration of schools — turning junior highs for grades 7, 8 and 9 into middle schools for grades 6, 7 and 8 — teachers served on 20 committees for middle school and even more for changes at the high schools. District officials had discussed the use of standards-based grades for sixth-graders at meetings of school site councils.

She hadn’t expected that retaining the same grading system that’s been in place for sixth-graders since 2003 would generate any opposition as it made its way into middle schools this year.

“I misread this, clearly,” Bodensteiner told the audience. “I misread it. I get that. We are here now, and so I want to talk about how do we do this, so that we can provide good feedback for kids, provide good feedback for you, and not make a decision based on a lot of emotion that’s happening right now but make a careful decision about what’s really good for our students.”

Members of the Lawrence school board plan to discuss the issue during a meeting sometime in December or January.


Lawrence Fire Chief Mark Bradford.

Mark Bradford, president of the school board, generated some tension when he discussed the district’s plans for standards-based grading at the sixth-grade level.

The board will decide the issue, after hearing from parents and teachers and anyone else who wants to offer input — through letters or forums or emails or petitions or any other format, Bradford noted.

And teachers who may not like it, he suggested, essentially would have a choice to make — just as people decide where they want to live, or where they might choose to work.

“Once the decision is made on how we’re going to do grading in this school district,” he said, “then that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Kim Beeler, a parent from Southwest who has been critical of standards-based grading in middle school, quickly stood up and accused Bradford of “bullying” the district by suggesting that teachers could “choose to work here.”

“It’s not fair,” said Beeler, who referred to 30 teachers having signed a letter opposing the grading system for sixth-graders. “There’s a real disconnect with the teachers. This is our town, and our schools that we pay money for. It’s really frustrating to hear that.”

Bradford stood his ground: “I’m just saying: When the decision is made about which way we’re going to go, if you want to work here, that’s how you have to do it.”

Beeler described Bradford’s attitude as “insulting,” especially considering that the district didn’t schedule any teachers opposed to the system as speakers during the forum.

Bradford assured Beeler and others that his thoughts reflected a simple reality.

“We have to move on,” he said. “We could have teachers from both sides here, (and) it’s not going to change anything. But a decision has got to be made, if you’re a teacher, on what we’re going to do so we can move on.”


One teacher who accepted the district’s invitation to make a presentation to the audience was Therese Brink Edgecomb, who teaches sixth-grade language arts and social studies at Liberty Memorial Central Middle School.

Edgecomb drew positive comments from attendees regarding her consistent use of standards, her clear outline of student expectations, and especially, it seemed, her tying of traditional letter grades to standards-based grades.

In Edgecomb’s book, the only students who can earn an “S” for a particular standard are those receiving an A or a B for that standard, she said. An “M” for making progress? That’s reserved for kids earning a C in that standard.

An “S” is considered her highest grade for students doing grade-level work. A student could get all questions correct on a test or an assignment or anything else, and such achievement would be assigned an “S.”

To earn what many parents consider to be the best grade — an “E,” for excelling consistently — a student would need to be doing work beyond his or her grade level. Consider a standard related to research, she said: Writing down information from a source would represent satisfactory grade-level research, meeting the established state standard.

Consistently interpreting information from a source, and applying it to reach conclusions would be going to the next level.

“That’s awesome,” Edgecomb told the crowd. “That’s ‘E’ work.”

Several attendees lauded Edgecomb’s clear expectations, passion for teaching and detailed standards for achievement.

One parent expressed a wish that such consistency could be present in every class at every grade level.

“Then we probably wouldn’t be here,” he said.