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Nashua district enters world of competency-based grading

By Barbara Taormina
Union Leader Correspondent

January 23. 2014 10:20PM

NASHUA — Students will soon be receiving new report cards with slews of scores that reflect their knowledge and abilities in each course.

The school district is piloting the new competency-based grading system that will track academic progress and provide a detailed a picture of each student’s performance in each subject. Rather than just a single letter grade, students will receive multiple scores on their understanding of different aspects of a subject and their level of ability based on a system-wide set of expectations or standards.

Teachers and administrators have held several workshops with the Board of Education to explain competency-based grading. While board members support the goals of the new system, there are some questions of how it will affect the growing workload for teachers and how students and parents will adjust to the new report cards.

“Competency-based grading will increase the standardization and reduce the variability among teachers,” said David Goldswith, head of the Social Studies department at Nashua High South.

Many students and parents have seen how different teachers who are offering the same course give different grades based on a variety of subjective factors. Students may be able to earn A’s without much trouble in one teacher’s classroom while students in another class may struggle for a B- in the same course.

And in a lot of cases, it’s not clear how a teacher decides a student has earned an A or an F.

Competency-based grading relies on a common set of four or five expectations, or competencies, for each course. For example, a competency in Algebra 1 might include the ability to demonstrate how to manipulate and solve equations using different techniques.

Students in French classes may have one competency targeted toward the ability to speak the language and another competency that involves the ability to write it.

For each competency in each course, students will receive a score of 1 to 4 that reflects their level of proficiency. To earn credit for a course, students must score at least a 2 on all course competencies, which means they are partially proficient but still have an inconsistent understanding of the material and an uneven level of skill.

According to educators, competency scores zero in on a student’s strengths and map out areas individuals need to improve to be ready for college or careers. Students who have low competency scores will be able to improve those grades through different “re do” or recovery options. Students and teachers will work together on individual plans geared toward giving students another chance to show they acquired certain skills and mastered specific concepts.

As teachers and administrators were developing Nashua’s new grading system, they reached out to students and parents for ideas and input.

“One of the things we heard is that people still wanted a letter grade,” said Goldwith.

Educators have developed a table that converts competency scores to traditional letter grades. According to the chart handed out during last week’s workshop, of competency score of 2 is a D, while scores that range from 2.67 to 2.88 is equivalent to a B-.

“Letter grades will still be used for GPAs and class rank,” added Goldwith.

Several BOE members said they have been hearing concerns from parents about competency-based grading and what it will mean for their children.

“I’m sold on the process, and I’m sold on the goal but I am hearing some angst from parents and students,” said BOE member Kimberly Muise. “Sometimes there’s a breakdown between educator talk and the talk of parents and students. Maybe they aren’t understanding what your competencies mean.”

Teachers said they have held off on explaining the new grading system because it’s still being fine tuned.

“Telling students about a changed policy that doesn’t exist yet would create more angst,” said Goldwith, who added that students will be briefed “holistically,” hopefully with the help of a group of students who have been involved in developing the new system.

Goldwith also acknowledged there may be a need for teachers and administrator to refrain from “ed speak” when explaining competency-based grading to the community.

Kelly Holmes, head of the science department at Nashua High South, said students would receive a syllabus in each course that clearly defines the required competencies.

Some on the board also wondered whether teachers would be able to keep up with the additional work that competency grading requires.

BOE member Dotty Oden asked about teachers who had classes with significant numbers of students who may require credit recovery plans under the new system.

Goldwith said competency-based grading will be more work for teachers, but the change is needed to keep pace with wave of education reforms taking place to better prepare students for college and careers.

“The reality is that now, grading isn’t the end,” said Goldwith. “It’s the beginning of how we get students to a level of mastery.”

Education Nashua

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