Competency-based grading narrowly maintained in 4-4 vote

NASHUA – After teachers, students and staff advocated to maintain the Nashua School District’s new competency-based grading system, a motion to replace the system failed by a narrow margin before the Board of Education on Tuesday.

Prompted by a recommendation from the board’s Curriculum and Evaluation Committee, the motion was to maintain competency-based education, but replace the current 11-point
competency-based grading scale with the traditional 100-point scale.

Longtime Nashua resident and teacher Jeanne O’Brien asked the board for more time with the new system. "Educators are often accused of being reactionary and lacking on planning; by allowing more time in allowing the present system to evolve, Nashua has the chance to be proactive," O’Brien told the board, surrounded by more than a dozen other supporters standing beside her.

She said trouble with X2, the grading software system, caused a lot of the confusion during the grading scale transition, but urged the board not to abandon it. "This is an ongoing and dynamic process. We need more time."

Voting against the motion – and to keep the 11-point system in place – were Elizabeth Van Twuyver, Bill Mosher, George Farrington and Sandra Ziehm, while Dorothy Oden, Doris Hohensee, Howard Coffman and David Murotake voted to change the system. Robert Hallowell was absent.

It was Hohensee who brought the motion forward. "I think there is more flexibility with this grading system," she said, noting that a majority of parents who responded on a recent survey about the issue wanted the 100-point grading system reinstated. "I think we can go forward with the competencies and we can work with the grading," she said.

Mosher said he doesn’t have much faith in surveys, "While they are well intentioned, they are as murky as mud."

A member of the implementation committee, Robert Sitar said the motion to replace the grading system was too vague, and time was running out to make a change. "We’re back in the school in the fall in 90 days – sooner for faculty," he said.

Coffman said the question was raised, "Why the rollback?" He said as a new board member, he did not witness the creation of the new grading system, but said he believes the rollout was a failure. "The way it was rolled out by the administration and implementation team, I see as a failure to communicate," Coffman said.

"If you’re going to take seven years to develop something, you should really take some time to think about its deployment," he said. He said parents and students heading to college have a transcript that is difficult to understand. "I’m feeling the pain in the community. And I respect the amount of work that teachers put into this," he said. "I’m all for innovation, OK, and not for experimentation. To me, this effort, while founded in very well intentioned people … was an experiment," Coffman said.

An audience member called out that the implementation of the grading system was a Board of Education decision, to which Coffman replied, "I didn’t do it."

Farrington addressed Coffman’s comments, "I think the previous comments that were made were unprofessional to our staff and to our district," he said, "I think the standards-based, competency-based system is a huge improvement." Teachers have reported they know their students better than ever before, he said.

"No matter what grading system we use, the ultimate grading system we use is out there in the community," Farrington said. While the 100-point system helps students debate GPA within seven decimal points, the new system helps avoid the need for remediation after graduation.

Oden said the problem is "much bigger" than competencies, citing frequent absences and rampant cell phone use among students.

Nashua teacher and parent Susan Rourke said the new system speaks to the district’s legacy as a progressive, student-based school. "Please show faith in the hundreds of professionals who teach high school here in Nashua," Rourke said.

Nashua South student Ben Telerski said the new scale needs more time for the school community to adjust. "We shouldn’t be trying to go back to the 100-point scale simply because it’s the way it has always been," he said. Telerski said the 11-point system needs work, but is a better system.

Mary Zhu, a student liaison to the board from Nashua High School South, recommended improving the current system rather than returning to the 100-point system. "We have more of a problem with communication and technology than with the system itself," she said.

Student board liaison Alexandra Norris, from Nashua High School North, said the current system needs more time, "It’s had seven months. A lot of the issues were technological, and my understanding is many of these have been addressed."

South senior Noah Telerski said the new system has been in the works for years. "I’ve been working, and been around competencies for three years. And now, with the turnover of the board, it seems like all that work will be gone," he said, "And why? Because you don’t like it? I don’t like broccoli, but I still eat it sometimes."

He said people might not like it because they don’t understand it, "Then we need to do a better job of explaining it."

Murotake said he is a longtime supporter of competency-based education, but said the 100-point scale supports it, too. "I am going to support this motion, because I believe it moves the district forward and addresses the concerns of many parents and students," he said.

Tina Forbes can be reached at 5946402, tforbes@nashuatelegraph. com or @Telegraph_ TinaF.