FARMINGDALE — Hall-Dale High School adopted a new grading system during the 2009-10 school year following months of study by a committee of school staff and parents.

Some parents complained of confusion and snags in the transition to standards-based grading, leading to public meetings about the issue and a petition signed by 136 parents.

“We felt like students were flailing, and teachers were struggling to keep up, and it wasn’t working well with anyone,” Farmingdale mother Diane Smith said Friday.

Two years later, many of the same problems remain, Smith said.

Smith and other parents are trying to revive attention to those problems at a critical time. Many have children who are juniors and were the first students to receive standards-based grades in high school and who are now preparing to apply for college.

In addition, state education officials are pointing to Regional School Unit 2 as an example as they promote the approach the district is pioneering, also called proficiency-based education.

In the system, the curriculum is broken down into standards that represent skills and concepts that students are expected to master. Students receive a grade on each standard rather than an average for a course.

Proponents of the system say it allows parents and students to understand exactly where a student’s knowledge gaps are rather than obscuring those gaps by averaging high and low scores together to create an overall grade.

Standards-based grading is typically based on a 1-4 scale, with a score of 3 for proficiency, the level students are expected to reach.

But RSU 2 — which also serves Dresden, Monmouth and Richmond — does not have its own house in order, said Alan Plummer, whose son, a junior, attends Hall-Dale.

Plummer said the standards-based grading system does not motivate students, does not give enough credit for progress and lends itself to misleading comparisons with a traditional grade point average.

He said he and other parents plan to take out a newspaper ad and go on a local radio show to ask for more response from RSU 2 administrators. They’re asking that things such as a dual grading system or grades that are more sensitive to incremental gains be considered.

“We’re invested in making this work,” said Smith, who has a son who’s a junior in high school and two children in middle school. “We want it to be done in a thoughtful manner with minimal impact on the students.”

Smith said that she likes proficiency-based education in theory.

Before Hall-Dale schools started using standards-based grading, a committee of school staff and parents spent months studying the issue and made a detailed list of recommendations for a smooth transition.

Many of those steps still have not been taken, including creating a way to evaluate whether the system is working, Smith said.

“By the end of the last year we were feeling exhausted,” she said. “We were really looking forward to having a new superintendent come in and lay this foundation and hopefully get us where we need to be, but I think we’re still sort of on rocky ground.”

RSU 2 Superintendent Virgel Hammonds said the grading system is evolving in response both to the school staff’s needs and to parent concerns.

“I think in six months that I’ve been here, we’ve done a lot of things to meet the concerns of the parents,” he said. “Are we all the way there? No, not yet.”

This year, for example, they modified the school profile sent to college admissions offices to explain the district’s standards and grading. They also adopted a new honor roll system with input from the students and added grades of 1.5, 2.5 and 3.5. Previously, the only scores that students could receive were 1, 2, 3 or 4.

Plummer thinks that increments of 0.5 are still too large to recognize, for example, a student whose work is worth more than a 3.5 but not quite advanced enough for a 4.

Casco Bay High School in Portland, a 275-student alternative school that prepares students for college, has standards-based grades that use increments of 0.25.

Both Plummer and Smith favor a dual grading system like the one used at Gorham High School, in which students receive number grades on individual standards but also an overall letter grade for a course.

According to a Powerpoint presentation given when Gorham adopted the system, “A dual system of reporting will give teachers, students and parents better information about individual student strength and needs based on specific learning targets, and at the same time, traditional grades will give an overall status of student progress.”

Hammonds said that he is not familiar with the systems at Casco Bay or Gorham but is open to taking cues from other schools.

He said he is working with the curriculum and communications committees on the RSU school board to create town-specific groups for addressing concerns about grading.

“Some of these things I hear about that were requests made years ago, but I’m just hearing about them now,” Hammonds said. “I understand the frustration, but I just want to make sure we do things as correctly as we can.”

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

[email protected]

 

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