NASHUA — Competency-based grading at the city’s high schools officially begins in September 2015, but the heavy lifting involved in developing the new report cards and assessment strategies has been taking place this year.
The new system, which is part of a broad wave of education reform throughout public education, will establish a list of clearly-defined skills and levels of knowledge students are expected to have at the end of a course. Students will receive numerical scores that reflect their abilities with different elements of each course and along the way, they will have opportunities to make up work to ensure they earn credits.
“We are setting higher standards which is what colleges want to see,” said Superintendent Mark Conrad at a Board of Education workshop on the new grading system this week. “They don’t want to see just high grades, they want to know there is rigor behind those grades.”
Although the board was slow to embrace the new report cards which are already being used in other school districts, most members now seem convinced that the potential benefits are worth overhauling the traditional grading. “I was probably one of the most concerned members of this board,” BOE Vice Chairwoman Kim Muise told a team of teachers who have been leading the district’s shift to competency-based grading. But Muise said she was reassured by the extensive planning that has gone into the new report cards, and the decision to slow down the full implementation of the new system. With competency-based grading, students understand at the start of a course what expectations they need to meet. An example used at an earlier workshop listed four competencies students need to demonstrate in a World Studies course. Students need to display an understanding of tensions based on power and wealth and people’s reactions, and show they understand the roots of foreign policy. Students must also be able to connect ideology, behavior and demographic changes and role of government, and demonstrate interactions with physical and technological environments.
For each of those four elements, or competencies, students will receive a score of 1 to 4, with 1 signifying a student is “in progress” and 4 reflecting the fact that a student is “proficient with distinction.”
In order to earn credit for a course, students must score at least a 2, or “partially proficient” in all competencies listed for the course.
Students who are struggling with any particular required competency will have the chance to make up work with a teacher during the new E-Block, a 35-minute period built into each school day that allows time for remedial work. Students who are on target with all competencies in all courses will be able to use the E-Block for enrichment projects and activities.
The district is planning a gradual implementation of competency-based grading and students will continue to receive traditional letter grades along with their competency scores. There is a conversion table to show how letter grades are determined, and those letter grades will still be used to determine GPAs and class ranks.
“Teachers are buying into this because of their commitment to see students succeed,” said David Goldsmith, head of the history department at Nashua High South.
Kelly Holmes, head of the Science Department at South, said student grades will be a more accurate reflection of their accomplishments.
“We won’t be grading kids on how well they participate in class or whether they bring in canned goods for a Thanksgiving food drive,” she said.
Some BOE members have questioned if the new system will require hiring a significant number of new teachers to help students achieve passing scores with different competencies, and BOE chairman George Farrington questioned how much the new system would added to the ever-expanding workload on teachers.
Goldsmith acknowledged that it won’t be an easy transition for teachers, but added there is a lot of support for the new system.
“And I don’t think you want the data on how hard teachers work,” he told the board. “It would be scary.”