Proficiency-based education at Sumner High

Dear Editor:

I was drawn to a couple of points in your article, “Consultant addresses RSU 24,” regarding preparing students to be lifelong learners and the need to teach the guiding principles of responsibility and trustworthiness. Part of preparing students to be lifelong learners is helping to build student confidence. It could be argued that with the competency of the teaching staff and the direction RSU 24 has taken with proficiency-based education (PBE), that the above goals are being fulfilled. However, developments at Sumner Memorial High School last year give this concerned grandparent reason to pause and question.

When my grandchild started high school, several ideals were relayed in regards to PBE. Students are expected to grow over the year with the intent that final grades reflect the students’ final mastery. More specifically, students would not be penalized for early low scores as long as they demonstrated improvement by the end of the year. Additionally, it was communicated that being proficient (obtaining a 3) could be comparable to getting a 100 percent in the traditional grading system. For example, students were told to expect a score of 3 for getting 100 percent correct on a math test. To go up to the 4 range, students had to show advanced work. This seems to address the “rigor” referenced in the article.

So what gives pause? First, midway last year, the school adopted a “transcripting guide” to accompany the student transcript upon graduation. The result is that mastery (proficient or a 3), initially considered a possible 100 percent, is now labeled as a definitive 87 percent. Students who were building confidence in their ability to prove mastery are understandably disheartened to find that the school’s official opinion of their accomplishment is now greatly diminished. That’s certainly not a confidence booster. What’s the effect of this drastic change on trust?

The second issue pertains to Mastery Connect, the tracking system adopted by RSU 24 last year. The program shows student performance level in each benchmark. A final standing of 1-4 is readily displayed for each benchmark. When a student shows proficiency (or 3) in all benchmarks in a class, a colored wheel turns solid green and reports 100 percent mastery. Per PBE philosophy, to keep learning until mastery is achieved, students were encouraged to monitor the tracking system and concentrate reassessment efforts on the benchmarks in the lower range. It seems straightforward.

So, what’s to question? At the end of last year, my proud and confident grandchild reported attaining 100 percent mastery in most classes. When my very disappointed grandchild produced the final report card a couple weeks later, it showed different results. Almost all course grades were in the 2 range. A 2 has consistently been communicated as emerging, not mastered, both in Mastery Connect and in official RSU 24 communications. How is it possible, when all school communications and the tracking system indicate a student is 100 percent in mastery, the reported course grades are showing a significant lower level of achievement? Indeed, on my grandchild’s final report, I noted classes with all 3s reported for final benchmark scores and the wheel showed all standards met at “3-PROF. and Above.” Yet, the final class grades on the report card were in the 2 range.

A letter that accompanied the report card stated that course grades are calculated from raw scores with decimals. These lower “raw score” grades will receive prominent visibility as a permanent record on the cover sheet of the transcript. What is a future employer or college admission counselor to believe — the grades on the cover sheet or the reported benchmark grades? Shouldn’t they match? What is the real level of achievement? The concept of “raw scores” drew a blank with my grandchild and the parents, not having ever heard the term in connection with grading; and to be certain, there are no decimals on Mastery Connect. It would seem, barring no other quirk in calculation, that “raw” course grades are the result of averaging all assessment grades for the year, including the early learning grades that students were told not to worry about? Averaging is traditional grading, contrary to what was communicated to students and completely contrary to proficiency-based education. It makes absolutely no sense for course grades not to match the achieved benchmark grades. As RSU 24 has repeatedly communicated, the teaching and learning are very different between PBE and the traditional system. It would be confusing enough to expect students and teachers to operate under the two different education systems simultaneously, but consider the confusion for the students who did not know that course grades and GPA would be calculated traditionally and not per PBE. Shouldn’t that communication have been an important administrative responsibility?

I understand that the grading system has been revamped for this year; reporting of standards, course grades and GPA should be in sync. The change indicates recognition of last year’s problem, but it falls short in correcting last year’s inconsistency. Is it beneficial to students to report course grades and GPA differently from year to year, switching back and forth between traditional grading and PBE reporting? Something went awry at Sumner High last year. PBE was not consistently practiced and responsible communication fell short. Receiving the brunt of these shortcomings were disheartened and confused students.

This is not a good set up to instill a desire to be a lifelong learner. Being fond of Sumner High School, and in light of consultant Bill Daggett’s message, I hope that the school moves to correct last year’s grades to establish consistency between the benchmarks, the course grades, and the overall GPA. This will do much to re-establish confidence in students, mend the broken trust, and position RSU 24 as more believable as they advocate for Proficiency Based Education. Not only will it enhance community confidence, which helps big change go smoother, but it just seems like the responsible thing to do.

EJ Kennedy


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