Responding to parent, teacher and student concerns, Falmouth Middle School will assign traditional letter grades to student work when classes resume. Courtesy / Falmouth School Department

FALMOUTH — Following two recent community meetings, the School Department has agreed to dump proficiency-based assessments used at the middle school last year and return to traditional letter grading.

Superintendent of Schools Geoff Bruno said this week that the newer proficiency-based report cards were too confusing and did not provide the level of clarity families needed to understand where students stood academically.

That’s why parents and students in the fall will see the more traditional letter grades on individual class assignments and for their overall course grades. However, Bruno said, parents would also still receive a standards-based report so they can have a more detailed understanding of areas that require more focus or improvement.

Bruno said grading was a major topic at the School Department’s annual Community Dialogue session, which was held in early June. At that meeting, he said, parents strongly pushed back against the standards-based report cards. He said some students and staff also spoke up about difficulties with the new way of assessing student progress.

Bruno then convened a group of administrators and middle school teachers, who developed the plan to return to traditional letter grades for the 2019-2020 academic year. That proposal was then presented to a group of about 40 parents, who met again July 9.

Implementing a standards- or proficiency-based system for evaluating a student’s work was a state mandate until last spring, when the Legislature repealed the measure. That left school districts to choose the method of grading they wished to use.

Bruno said while Falmouth schools had fully implemented the standards-based assessments at the elementary school level, it had not yet applied it to all students at the middle school until this past academic year. This week he said the elementary school would continue to rely on standards-based evaluations, but it would be the only school in the district to do so.

Bruno said he agreed with parents that the standards-based method was confusing and caused unnecessary angst. Bruno also said the standards-based method made it difficult to include necessary data in the School Department’s grading software system, which is used to track students and their progress.

While the “primary purpose of grades at Falmouth Middle School is to communicate learning (and) not to punish, reward, rank, or sort,” according to School Department information provided at last week’s parent meeting, the new modified reporting system is designed to help parents and students “better understand student learning through the language of the grade” received.

The overall goal in grading students, the School Department said, is “to ensure (they) develop the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed at the next level of learning (and) to help us identify students who may have lagging skills in one or more areas and (who may) need additional support.”

Parent Leslie Zamer, part of a group of more than 150 families who advocated for the return to letter grades at the middle school, this week she said the July 9 meeting was “positive” and “as a whole, parents were pleased with the proposed changes.

“It was also clear that teachers and administrators put a significant amount of time and effort into making meaningful changes after listening to parent concerns,” she said.

Since being implemented, Zamer said, “standards-based reporting has (negatively) impacted the communication between teachers and parents regarding student performance. Students and parents are now confused about what students are learning and how they are performing.”

She said parents were “looking for a clear way for school performance to be evaluated and communicated.”

“Falmouth schools have a strong reputation. Our teachers are committed (and) the curriculum is strong,” Zamer said, but standards-based reporting doesn’t allow parents or others to understand what their children are learning when the highest score they can get is a four on a four-point scale. She said some parents also were concerned that evaluating students that way could reduce the students’ motivation to do better.

“This is a complex issue and everyone involved – parents, teachers and administrators – wants what is best for the students,” Zamer said. ‘We just differed in our opinion of what the best approach is.”