Compromise solves grading controversy at LHS
By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
Liberal High School teachers and administrators have worked out a compromise solution to the concerns raised with Competency Based Grading, or CBG. That was the news reported quietly in written form by deputy superintendent of schools Renae Hickert at Monday’s USD 480 board meeting.
Resolving the often fiery issue was like a “good breath of fresh air,” said LHS principal Keith Adams. After a tumultuous semester when tempers flared and angry parents appealed to the school board to stop CBG at the nine weeks mark, “We can finally come back together as a team and move forward and have a good feeling about what happened.”
The School Improvement Team (SIT) made up of nine faculty and staff members, including several department heads and tenured teachers, “came to consensus on the important things regarding the grading framework,” Hickert reported to the board.
To do so, members of the team — Luz Riggs, Heather Watt, Michelle Bremenkamp, Shelly Tiedeman, Lori Navarro, Wes Fox, Margaret Porter, parent coordinator Sara Rodriguez and Joni Bolen — spent the second half of the semester gathering data.
“We did a survey of the faculty, gathered comments from students and spent a lot of time in discussion,” Adams said. Three major areas of concern emerged:
• Some teachers disagreed about how much weight should be given to homework or “formative assignment” grades.
• Some teachers were uncomfortable with a rigid system for offering retakes on tests or “summative assignments,” which locked teachers into a certain procedure to ensure students had mastered the material.
• Some teachers were not in agreement about how much a final exam should be worth.
In the end, Adams said, “We were able to address the issues that were a sticking point for a lot of the teachers that were in opposition.”
As the SIT worked through the questions, the procedure became to set up a framework to allow flexibility.
For example, “Those that were kind of hung up on the homework factor could make it worth up to 20 percent of the final grade,” Adams said. “That’s still pretty high. It’s enough to affect a whole letter grade, but that was a compromise to give some flexibility for the teachers.”
As to test and project retakes, the team agreed to allow them, at the teacher’s discretion.
“We want retesting to happen because we know that’s part of the learning process — to be able to redo and relearn by correcting our mistakes,” Adams said.
However, teachers now have more leeway to allow and implement such retakes in ways that fit their own schedule and classroom management style.
Most other areas of concern were resolved with these two concessions, but finals still needed to be addressed, Adams said. Some teachers were weighting final exams at 20 percent of the grade, regardless of whether they were comprehensive tests or regular unit tests.
“Finals are a summative test that is included in the 80 percent of the overall grade,” he said. “If you look at a comprehensive final, that in itself is more difficult. We really couldn’t justify giving them extra weight, unless the class is a concurrent one with special requirements from the college.”
Hashing through all those details wasn’t easy.
“Anything you do in that fashion is challenging, you get emotions involved, you’re addressing traditions … it is challenging,” Adams said.
Throughout the process, Hickert maintained confidence in Adams’ ability to bring his team of faculty together. She described her role as one of behind-the-scenes support, brainstorming and providing feedback.
“I really want him to work on this and to bring his staff together, because I think only he can do that,” she said in November. “I have every faith that those are his intentions. I know that’s his ultimate goal.”
A month later, she feels good about what resulted. So does Adams.
“We visited at that last faculty meeting about how situations like this one are how we grow,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but we know now that we can get things done. We can rise up and meet the challenges, and in the process we become better people, better educators and better team members.”
The clearest example of that is the SIT approach to the stickiest issue of all: mandatory use of CBG.
Starting in the second semester of the current academic year, teachers no longer will be required to follow CBG in their classrooms. During the first semester of the 2013-14 school year, all new teachers and those who had not earned tenure were required to adopt CBG practices.
“We’re making revisions to the Framework for Grading that reflect what the SIT decided, and we’re going to roll out that Framework as what we’d like everyone to agree to follow,” Adams said. Even though SIT members felt compliance should be required of all teachers, “it’s not mandatory,” he said. “We want people to use it, but we thought next semester, we’d put it into a voluntary basis.”
In a sense, the gentler approach is an effort to make amends for what many teachers felt was a heavy-handed introduction to CBG over the past year.
“Some people were upset that they felt themselves forced to use it,” Adams said. “Some of those people actually ended up — maybe not intentionally — sabotaging the process because of a lack of understanding. They weren’t feeling a buy-in. It gave CBG a black eye.”
The new approach is intended to “let people feel more at ease, moving forward. It’s kind of like our social contract that we have each classroom set up,” he said. “Even though one person doesn’t sign it, it becomes the way we do business as a whole. Maybe next year, as we go forward, the teachers might find there’s a majority in favor of adopting it as a firm policy.”
As things stand, “we’ve got teachers who are doing some amazing things within CBG, and I’m going to support them 100 percent. And we’ve got some teachers who are on the upper end of that flexibility, and they’re excellent teachers, and I’m going to support them 100 percent.” Like every school, Adams added, “we’ve got others who may or may not be using CBG or teaching effectively, and we’re going to have some serious conversations.”
The goal is for the Framework for Grading to set parameters that any teacher at the high school should be able to follow, no matter what their personal philosophy or style of teaching.
“We don’t want to stifle teachers or make them work in lockstep,” Adams said. “There’s a term in education where we talk about the ‘loose-tight relationship.’ Some things you have to be pretty tight on, there’s very little flexibility; you can’t teach your pet projects, because we have a standard set curriculum. But then each individual teacher selects how they’re going to teach that curriculum. We want them to have opportunities to work in their own style.”
Hickert anticipates a continuing learning curve as grading practices make their way into the open.
“Even if CBG had been implemented differently, these conversations would still be difficult,” she said. “Before, a teacher could struggle with grading and not have a conversation with anybody. Now it’s out in the open. It’s been a difficult process, but it has brought to the surface things that needed to be discussed — and not just in Liberal.”
Locally, the issue sparked some debate, and even anger, in the community and the faculty at LHS.
“My biggest disappointment is that we had to go through the firestorm at all,” Adams reflected. “We could have arrived here in a little bit more civil fashion. We could have arrived at the same place, with a good, honest discussion.”
Nonetheless, Adams is at peace with the issue.
“I’m pleased with where we are,” he said. “Culture is so important. To have a learning culture, a collaborative culture, will move us further ahead in the long run. Had we continued without any sort of compromise, we would have had more divisiveness amongst faculty that is not good. To maintain a healthy culture with a compromise such as this is a win-win.”