Kenyon: No Longer as Easy as ABC

Call me old school, but the “standards-based” grading system that the Claremont School District rolled out this fall takes some getting used to.

Completing homework on time — if at all — isn’t a factor. Participating in class doesn’t count. Extra credit assignments won’t get you bonus points.

A student’s fate seems to ride almost totally on how well he or she performs on “competency-based” tests.

Claremont has done away with letter grades, too. Instead of the traditional A, B, C, D, F system, students now strive to be deemed “proficient with distinction” or at least, “proficiency plus.” At the other end of the grading spectrum there is “partly proficient” and “substantially below proficient.”

I just hope for more transparency in my next job review.

For better or worse, Claremont is following the lead of the New Hampshire Department of Education, which bases its standardized testing system around the P word. “These competency grades truly reflect what a student knows and can do with that information,” states Stevens High’s website. “Students are asked to demonstrate true understanding rather than simple recall or luck, in the case of multiple choice questions.”

I suppose as long as kids are learning the three Rs at an early age, it really doesn’t matter what grading system is used. But once students reach high school, the stakes are significantly higher. They need a grading system that colleges take seriously. (A lack of confidence in the way that schools grade is probably why many college admissions offices rely so heavily on SAT and ACT results.)

So it wasn’t surprising that many Stevens High students and their parents were skeptical that the standards-based grading system had been designed with their best interests in mind. Students started a Facebook page called “Against the New Grading System.”

At a School Board meeting that drew about 30 students and parents in October, Chairman Richard Seaman sat at the front of the table. Staring at him from the other side was a Stevens High senior he knew quite well.

Throughout the debate, Richard and Dan Seaman have brought father-son talks to a whole new level. At the dinner table and during car rides, they hashed out the issues, such as why homework shouldn’t count toward a final grade.

Richard Seaman compared homework to batting practice. A baseball player needs to practice in the batting cage, but who thinks the home runs should count?

That’s fine, Dan argued back, but “I don’t think the grades (in the new system) adequately represent what I have learned.”

“We had some great conversations,” Richard Seaman told me. “When Dan speaks, I’ve found that he’s well worth listening to. He brought up some real concerns.”

The first Stevens High report cards using the new grading system came out last month. Clearly, some confusion still remained over such things as the difference between “proficient with distinction” and “proficiency plus.” Stevens issued “adjusted report cards” in late November.

School Board member David Putnam told me that he’s convinced Claremont is doing the right thing by basing grades on test results. His daughter was a top student at Stevens, but struggled with writing assignments when she got to Northeastern University a couple of years ago, he said. “In some respects, we were misleading students. They were getting good grades, but they weren’t as prepared as well as they should have been.”

Now that report cards are out, what do students think?

I figured seniors at the top of class would be among the biggest critics. Arguably, with the college application deadliness approaching, they are the ones with the most to lose. The status quo has served them just fine. They excelled under the traditional grading system that rewards students for raising their hands in class and turning in homework assignments on time.

On Wednesday, I met Dan Seaman and Kendall Theroux after school. Seaman, who is planning on studying engineering, and Theroux, who is looking at pre-med, have their sights set on elite universities. The new grading system has led to even more stress at an already stressful time, said Theroux. “We are definitely guinea pigs,” she said. “But as a teacher told me, ‘Every good experiment needs a guinea pig.”

Although much has been made (guilty as charged) of the de-emphasizing of homework in the grading system, Seaman maintains that not much has changed. “You can’t blow off homework and expect to really understand the material,” said Seaman, whose course load includes physics, German and honors statistics (with Theroux).

Getting graded solely on their knowledge of a course’s content doesn’t bother Seaman or Theroux. At this point, they think Stevens has made a change for better. Along with demonstrating competency through test results, in some classes, students must also write essays and complete projects that show they grasp the material being taught.

In the traditional system, “it’s possible to get an A or B, but not really understand the material,” said Seaman.

During the debate, the unexpected happened. Students became their own advocates. More than half of Stevens’ students signed up for the Facebook page. “We’ve never had that many students united over one thing that we do now,” said Seaman.

For students worried that the new grading system puts them at a disadvantage when they submit applications for college and merit-based scholarships, administrators have tried to reassure them that the new terms do translate into a traditional grade point average.

Strip away the educational jargon, and what Claremont is trying starts to make sense. Even to us old schoolers.