MDIslander: Schools rethink traditional grades

Schools rethink traditional grades
Mount Desert Islander
February 2, 2012

By Dick Broom

BAR HARBOR — What do kids really need to learn in school, and how should they be graded? Will traditional report cards become obsolete?

Those are some of the questions raised by Mount Desert Island Regional School System’s (MDIRSS) adoption of “essential standards” that students are expected to meet.

Led by assistant superintendent Joanne Harriman, teams of teachers representing every school in the system have identified the knowledge and skills they believe are most important for students to master at every grade level and in every course.

This initiative is an attempt to establish what Ms. Harriman calls “clear, concise educational goals,” as opposed to the vague or unrealistic expectations associated with some previous efforts to reform American education.

On Jan. 25, Ms. Harriman moderated a forum for parents on the essential standards, which teachers throughout the system have begun using as a guide in planning lessons and leading classroom discussions.

Mount Desert Elementary School principal Scott McFarland said the essential standards do not represent a dramatic change in curriculum.

“They really just help us focus our instruction better and make lessons more meaningful for students,” he said.

Eight teachers representing several MDIRSS schools and different grade levels spoke about how they are using the essential standards and what they see as the benefi ts.

“It gives students real ownership. They know exactly what I’m trying to get them to learn and what they are going to be assessed on,” said Heather Dority, a fourth-grade teacher at Conners-Emerson School in Bar Harbor.

Kate St. Denis, who teaches math at Mount Desert Elementary School, said, “I can look at the textbook, look at the standards, look at how much time I have and plan my year accordingly.”

Crystal DaGraca, a third grade teacher at Tremont Consolidated School, said she likes to pose questions to get students engaged in topics related to the essential standards.

“We think of questions that relate to students’ lives, and that gives us a hook into why they should want to learn this,” she said. “So, instead of getting the question, ‘Why do I have to learn this?’ they are excited to learn it.”

In creating the essential standards, MDIRSS schools are in the forefront of the state’s effort to move toward a standards-based system of education.

Stephen Bowen, commissioner of the Maine Department of Education, is proposing that graduation not be based on the number of years students have spent in school but on what they have learned in eight content areas. He has asked the Legislature to approve a “proficiency-based” diploma that would fi rst be granted in 2017 to students who are now in the seventh grade.

“Standards-based education makes children grow because they are working on their challenge areas,” Ms. Harriman said. “Everyone is in a different place, but they are all working toward the next level.

Kelley Sanborn, MDIRSS director of special services, said the transition to standards-based education might encounter a few bumps along the way.

“The traditional structure of our schools – first you go to kindergarten, then to first grade, then to second grade – is going to get shaken up a bit,” she said. “That’s not a bad thing, but when you mess around with tradition, it makes people nervous.

“If you’re an 8-year-old who needs to work on first-grade skills in math and sixth-grade skills in reading, we need to have a way to accommodate that,” Ms. Sanborn said. “We have to really understand what it means to break down the walls so that kids can move along … in a way that’s not space and time dependent.”

That will involve re-thinking the traditional grading system and report cards, she said.

“We’re now talking with teams of teachers about what report cards should look like because we want to communicate accurate information to parents and students.”