SOUTH PORTLAND — The city’s public schools will change parts of a controversial proficiency-based grading system that has drawn strong criticism from parents, students and teachers here and across Maine.

Superintendent Ken Kunin announced the pending changes last weekend in an email to the high school community that followed increasing complaints and emotional testimony at a recent school board meeting.

The district will drop a 1-4 grading system at South Portland High School that replaced a traditional A-F grading system four years ago. The current grading system was part of the district’s incomplete move toward issuing proficiency-based diplomas, a state mandate passed in 2012 that the Legislature dropped last year.

School staff members have been reviewing the 1-4 grading system for the past several months, prompted by concerns about its accuracy, fairness, unexplainable calculations, complex reporting requirements and lack of nuance in reflecting individual students’ abilities, especially college-bound seniors.

“In individual meetings, community forums and meetings with faculty we have heard concerns from teachers, students and parents,” Kunin said. “We have listened carefully to these concerns and worked closely with faculty to determine the best path forward.”

The changes will take effect in the 2019-2020 school year at the high school only, Kunin said. The district will continue to use the 1-4 grading system at the elementary and middle schools. An update on the grading system review and pending changes will be provided at Monday’s school board meeting.

Kunin said the high school will transition to another form of grading such as a modified 100-point scale. The high school also will stop using Power Law or any other so-called trending formula to calculate grades and will return to calculating grade averages, he said.

The high school will continue to use proficiency-based learning practices, Kunin said, such as reporting whether students are meeting specific learning targets and separating habits-of-work assessments – how schoolwork gets done – from content-mastery scores.

“I want to stress that we did review in some depth whether or not we could change grading systems midyear at the high school,” Kunin said. “Teachers who have been leaders in this work for quite some time felt it would not be possible without running the risk of potential unintended negative consequences for students and general confusion.”

PROFICIENCY-BASED LEARNING

South Portland was among the early adopters of proficiency-based education and grading, serving as a demonstration district for JumpRope, a company that sells computer software for standards-based grading systems that measure the trend or change in student progress. The district’s system uses a complex algorithm that calculates grades based on a so-called Power Law Formula, which gives greater value to more recent test scores.

On its website, JumpRope says Power Law grading “is based on research on cognitive development” and “more closely represents true student learning progress. However, it is more difficult for students to understand or teachers to predict because the formula is very complex.”

Critics note that the grading system values improved performance over consistency, so a student who gets low grades at the start of the ranking period but shows great improvement near the end can wind up with a higher final grade than a student who gets consistently high marks.

School board Chairman Dick Matthews said he can’t explain the grading system and he’s tired of trying.

“It’s just not working for us,” Matthews said. “I welcome the change.”

Matthews said the pending change has strong board support and that some effort will be made to address grading discrepancies in the current school year. He noted that the current grading system was adopted under the former superintendent, Suzanne Godin, and the former curriculum director, Rebecca Brown, who is now a senior researcher and standards-based practices specialist with JumpRope.

“I get that a lot of people are upset,” Matthews said. “We wanted South Portland to be a leader.”

An email request seeking comment from Brown or another JumpRope representative went unanswered Tuesday.

The district pays $26,000 a year for JumpRope’s “learning management system,” Kunin said. Whether it will continue to use JumpRope remains to be seen. The district will be seeking a grading system that works for teachers, students and parents, he said.

CONCERNS ACROSS MAINE

Proficiency-based education and grading have riled a number of Maine school districts in the last year or so, including in Portland, Scarborough, Lewiston and Auburn. After the Legislature eliminated proficiency requirements last summer, some districts have taken steps to return to more traditional grading.

More than 100 South Portland High School students and parents showed their opposition to the current grading system at a school board meeting in December. Leaders of the group said they’re happy that the grading system will be changed, but they won’t be satisfied until students have a grading system that is accurate and understandable.

“I’m glad we’ve made progress,” said Peter Stocks, a high school parent. “There’s still a lot of work to do.”

Opponents of the current grading system also said the school district should adjust grades for students who have been hurt by the current system, and must do a better job of including teachers, students and parents in developing or reviewing policies and programs.

“One of the main concerns is to make sure nothing like this happens again,” said Max Saffer-Meng, a high school senior who is vice president of the student senate and valedictorian of the class of 2019.

“I sat on the steering committee for proficiency-based education,” Saffer-Meng said. “Parents, teachers and students had concerns from the beginning about this grading system, but the school administration didn’t listen. They had already decided this was the system they were going to be using.”

Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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