SOUTH PORTLAND — High school students say they are frustrated with administration’s response – or lack thereof – to what they called “strong resistance” to the district’s 4-year-old proficiency-based grading system.
A survey circulated last week by the South Portland High School Student Senate, which advocates for students by representing their viewpoints to the school administration, asked students to identify a school issue where they would “like to see change.”
According to Max Saffer-Meng, the senate vice president, 82 percent of the 250 students who took the survey selected “grading.”
Saffer-Meng’s sister, Rosie, said students had the opportunity to expand on their answers, and most clarified that the proficiency-based grading system is the issue.
Under the district’s system students are graded on a scale of 1-4, as opposed to the traditional 1-100 scale.
Max Saffer-Meng said the Student Senate plans to gather feedback through a similar survey of teachers, some of whom, he said, “feel like they’ve lost their voice” when it comes to grading.
“People have long been advocating for a change, but the School Board and administration have taken no steps to address their concerns,” Rosie Saffer-Meng said. “They’ve also shot down every solution that students have proposed.”
So students again addressed School Board members during their meeting Monday night.
“Since my freshman year, I have been writing detailed letters to the School Board and the school administration describing objective mathematical flaws with the grading system, and proposing detailed solutions to them,” Max Saffer-Meng, now a senior, said. “From virtually every student’s perspective, nothing has changed in response to my concerns.”
A major issue, he said, is JumpRope, the software used to measure proficiency. Saffer-Meng said it “rewards students for earning lower grades at the beginning of the year and punishes them for earning higher ones at the beginning of the year.”
“A student who earns 4s all year long and gets a 2 at the end will end up with a lower final grade than someone who earns 2s all year and gets a 4 at the end,” Saffer-Meng said.
Superintendent of Schools Ken Kunin said Tuesday that administrators have fielded complaints and acknowledged the software and other aspects of the district’s system are “complicated” and “confusing.”
Kunin said schools are using the system as a means to honor learning that shows a trend over time.
“We’ve been looking at our practices,” Kunin said, noting the conversation dates back to 2010. “It’s clear that our current system needs to be made simpler. … We need a system that makes it clear what students know and are able to do that includes clear learning targets.”
Kunin said he hopes the district can find a solution that will honor learning over time, but is also not perceived as a disadvantage to “high-achieving” students.
“It’s those students who are most concerned,” he noted, adding what some people don’t realize is how difficult it would be to change it in the middle of the school year.
Max Saffer-Meng said the system isn’t only confusing for students, but for parents, “who are trying to figure out how their kids are really doing in school” and teachers, who “grade their students differently.”
“Every teacher uses a different jury-rigging method to work around the trending program so that the grade more accurately reflects a student’s achievement and capability,” he said. “… At the beginning of the year, some teachers give 1s and 2s … where a student really should have earned a 3 or a 4, just so the trending formula will not hurt the students’ grades. The software is so flawed that teachers need to put in inaccurate grades to avoid hurting their students.”
Most importantly, Saffer-Meng said, the grading system is confusing for colleges that are used to either a traditional 0-100 scale or a College Board 0-4 scale, not the 1-4 scale.
“Our new decile ranking system compares students to their peers within this school,” he added. “But colleges need to make comparisons from one school to another, not within the same school.”
Because quizzes and tests are more heavily weighted, Saffer-Meng said students have little incentive to complete homework assignments.
“Assessments that are not summative tests (and) have zero impact on our grade for a class,” he said.
According to Kunin, a committee of teachers has been looking into the issue and will report to the board in January with concerns and suggested next steps.
“(Monday’s) meeting was spirited and helpful,” Kunin said. “We hope to come to some conclusion over the next few months.”
Max Gailey, a member of the Student Senate and one of two student representatives elected to the School Board, said from his perspective, it doesn’t seem the board has made discussion of the grading system a priority.
“Our grades are going through three different conversions,” Gailey said. “… As seniors, our grades are already messed up. It’s really not about us anymore, it’s about trying to get the system resolved for kids in younger grades.”
South Portland High School Student Senate members Sophie Routhier, left, Rosie Saffer-Meng, Margaret Herrick, Owen Jacobsen, Max Saffer-Meng and Max Gailey said they are fed up with a lack of response from the School Board and administration to concerns about the district’s proficiency-based grading system.