School adapts to grading changes

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BRATTLEBORO — High school students, faculty and parents are adjusting to a major change in how performance is measured.

"Right now, grading systems are competitive," said Steve Perrin, principle at Brattleboro Union High School. "Someone gets a 100 and someone gets a 20. Most people fall somewhere in between."

Starting next school year, students will no longer be graded in comparison to other students or on a scale from 0 to 100. Instead of giving out a grade in a subject, Perrin said, a student will be deemed "proficient."

"We've been looking at proficiency-based grading since about 2013," he said. "It was an idea that began in various pockets of the country. But in New England, it was really pioneered by the state of Maine."

Proficiency-based learning refers to systems of instruction, assessment, grading, and academic reporting that are based on students demonstrating that they have learned the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn as they progress through their education.

During the 2014/2015 school year, the Vermont Agency of Education offered grants to schools for a year of training for proficiency-based practices. Perrin said a team from Windham Southeast Supervisory Union spent two days a month learning all the aspects of the model, from assessment to classroom practices to the philosophy behind the system.

Act 77 had required schools to offer "flexible pathways" or alternative ways for students to document their learning. Vermont's updated educational quality standards now say graduates need to have a proficiency-based education by 2020.

Different schools in the state are at different places in terms of rolling out the new system, Perrin said.

"I'd say we're mid pack, we're right there in the middle," he said. "We have been studying since 2014. Now, we're ready to jump in."

His school has "10 Guiding Principles," which are based off a document from the Great Schools Partnership. These "set up exactly what we think students need to do," Perrin said.

"Student achievement is evaluated using common performance expectations," BUHS' version says. "Grades on tests, projects, presentations, etc. are based solely on the achievement of the student in relation to well-defined performance indicators, not relative to the performance of other students ... Academic progress is reported separately from work habits such as attendance, class participation and respect for BUHS Core values ... Students will have multiple opportunities to improve their work with assistance from their teacher."

The goal is to ensure students have "transferable" or "soft" skills when they graduate. That relates to things around communicating, problem solving and citizenship.

The BUHS Habits of Work Rubric lays out performance indicators — such as behavior, collaboration, participation, work completion — and students can score up to four points for each category. There is space for students and teachers to explain why the different scores are deserved.

This school year marks the second in which the HOW rubric has been used. An update in the school's athletic policy this year means students in sports must maintain a score of 2 or greater in their classes.

Proficiency scores go into full use next year, Perrin said. Teachers had the choice this year whether to use the 0-100 scoring or proficiency model. It was split about half and half.

A big challenge lies in the transition. Students, parents and teachers are trying to relate the scores to the old ones.

"'Well, is a 3 a 90, is 3 a 100?'" Perrin said. "So we've had a lot of trouble. Our mantra is a 3 is a 3. It's not necessarily tied to a number grade."

He stressed the importance of giving students several opportunities to improve their work, using a poorly written essay as an example.

"We don't want that to necessarily define that student's grade," he said. "It's about the learning. It's not necessarily about getting the grade. It's showing that you know the work."

His response to criticism on this front: "I have friends who failed their driver's test the first time they took it. They don't say, 'You can't drive.' They say, 'You have to take it again.'"

Colleges and universities want to see a percentile grade sometimes but many are accepting proficiency-based transcripts without penalty, Perrin said. Harvard University "explicitly" says students will not be disadvantaged in any way, he noted.

"We've spent some time talking to colleges," Perrin said. "Really, colleges see all kinds of transcripts."

He said schools will get BUHS' profile, which will explain how grading works.

Perrin acknowledges the changes will be confusing and difficult at first. But he believes the new system "gives a better picture of a student" and allows for more feedback.

"For years, we didn't really talk about how grades are generated," he said. "As an institution, we're looking at: What do we value? What do we want them to do? What do we want them to know?"

He expects the experience for parents checking their kids grades online will also improve by having more details in a more organized format.

Reach staff writer Chris Mays at cmays@reformer.com, at @CMaysBR on Twitter and 802-254-2311, ext. 273.

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