Portland schools may move away from traditional grade levels, grading systems

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PORTLAND — Eliminating traditional grade levels and scoring may soon dominate discussions in Maine’s largest school district.

One provision of a comprehensive plan framework approved several weeks ago by the School Board would establish standards-based grading throughout the city.

“It’s a conversation yet to be had in Portland,” Superintendent James C. Morse Sr. said.

Morse will likely not be part of that conversation, since he has given notice that he will leave his job in June.

Standards-based education has increased in popularity in recent years. Some districts, such as Gray-New Gloucester, have already adopted programs that dissolve traditional grade levels, instead requiring students to meet or exceed learning standards before moving on, regardless of how long it takes.

The Legislature approved a resolution in June that outlines a plan for statewide adoption of standards-based education. The legislation was sponsored by Sen. Justin Alfond, D-Portland, and was initially proposed as a law that would have eliminated credit-based graduation requirements and created statewide rubric systems for student evaluations.

However, the non-binding resolution was the only aspect of the law that was ultimately signed by the governor.

The programs are controversial enough that three School Board members voted against the comprehensive plan framework two weeks ago because they feared the program could be pushed forward as if it had their stamp of approval.

“I’m worried if I vote yes tonight, I’m already giving a thumbs up to standards-based grading. It hasn’t been vetted fully,” School Board member Marnie Morrione said during the Nov. 15 meeting.

Morrione, Jaime Caron and Laurie Davis voted against the framework.

Despite its inclusion in the comprehensive plan, Comprehensive Plan Steering Committee Chairman Peter Eglinton said it was not the panel’s purview to discuss the strategies the district would use to meet its goals, only to ask questions that flesh out the goals.

While the committee did not weigh in on standards-based grading, Eglinton said he would like to see the district consider doing both traditional grades and standards, so parents would not be left in the dark, and teachers could use the tools they need for evaluations.

Parent Elizabeth Griffin, who has two children in middle school and one in elementary school, said she had some serious concerns about the district moving away from traditional grades.

“I’m concerned about it because I don’t think it’s any less subjective,” she said. “We’re still relying on teachers to tell us how our children are doing.”

Griffin said she is familiar with the elementary school report cards, which function more like a standards-based approach, telling parents if their children are meeting or exceeding certain skill requirements, and that she doesn’t think they’re any more helpful for parents to evaluate their children’s progress than traditional grades.

“They become meaningful because the teacher explains them,” she said.

Like Eglinton, Morse said the section of the framework that includes standards-based grades is aimed at bringing that conversation to the community, rather than forcing the district to move in that direction.

But Griffin said she attended a public meeting earlier this year about the comprehensive plan and no one mentioned standards-based grading.

“This is a subject that should have come up in that meeting. Instead, we talked about goals like getting more students to graduate (high school). That’s not controversial at all,” she said.

However, Morse said he sees the state moving toward standards-based grading anyway, so Portland will have to keep up.

“The Common Core has already carved that path. We’re at the beginning stages of that discussion. There’s going to be lots of dialog. The issue is going to engage a lot of people with a lot of opinions,” he said.

The state’s Common Core standards for English and math proficiency – based on the national Common Core standards – were adopted by the Legislature in April. Now 48 states and the District of Colombia have signed on.

The Common Core mean students who move can expect consistency of their programs from district to district, because the standards will be the same no matter where they go to school.

School Administrative District 15 (Gray-New Gloucester) and (Regional School Unit 57 (Waterboro) schools have been piloting the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, or RISC program, and the organization has been offering a variety of standards-based grading symposiums for teachers and administrators in Maine lately.

However, while some schools have jumped into the standards-based programs relatively quickly, others have struggled to convince their communities that these programs are the best things for their children.

In Regional School Unit 2 (Richmond, Dresden, Farmingdale, Hallowell and Monmouth), parents and School Board members have opposed the change, questioning whether it provides students with rigorous enough programs to prepare them for college.

Griffin said she hopes to stay informed about the district’s decision to pursue standards-based grading, and that she is still concerned that if Portland’s students don’t have grades, they’ll have a more difficult time competing for colleges.

Griffin said after she wrote a letter to the School Board expressing her concerns, she also talked to other parents.

“They all said, ‘well, isn’t that silly,'” she said. “It doesn’t tell us any more than a grade-based system.”

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter: @emilyparkhurst.