Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Competency-Based Transcript and College Admissions

How will colleges be able to interpret grades when the high school switches to a four point scale? My son is a sophomore and I am concerned that he will be at a disadvantage when he applies to college.  - BHS Parent

This question was recently asked of me through our website.  It's a common question and an appropriate concern for parents to have.  There is a misconception out there that colleges and universities will not know how to interpret a competency-based transcript.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

We have spent a considerable amount of time consulting with admissions officers at top tier schools around New England and they have been consistent in their responses.  Colleges and universities accept students from all over the world.  Students from public schools, private schools, charter schools, home schoolers, international students, etc...  Admissions officers see a wide variety of transcript formats.  They see transcripts with and without class rank, GPA (weighted or unweighted), traditional letter grades and a variety of standards-based formats.  They consistently report that the transcript format is a non-issue.  The important piece is the school profile.  A well written school profile describes how admissions officers will interpret the wide variety of transcripts they review. The following is a direct quote from Caroline Weaver, Admissions Officer at Harvard:

"In a nutshell, we have no preference in how schools choose to evaluate their students.  We have every single variety of evaluation possible represented in our applicant pool.  As long as your school profile is comprehensive and explains how students are evaluated, which classes they are eligible to take in what years etc... we have all the information we need.  We are far less concerned with GPA and rank than we are with rigor of the curriculum.  We simply want to see students challenging themselves and doing well in those challenging classes.  Nearly half the schools represented in our applicant pool have done away with class rank.  And with today's crazy weighting systems GPAs mean very little if we don't have the "key" (school profile)....I think you will find this sentiment repeated by many of our peer institutions." 

This is consistent with the feedback we receive from the public and private colleges and universities with which we have consulted.  Although affirmations like this from top tier schools are reassuring, it's important to note that there have been no final decisions made about what the transcript or diploma will look like at Belmont High School.

Parents and community members who have followed our transition timeline understand that we have placed a much greater emphasis on teaching and learning than we have on grading and reporting.  As a faculty, we have committed to the study and implementation of research-based practices that have been shown to have the most powerful impact on student learning.  As we develop more sophisticated and effective instruction and assessment practices a natural shift in reporting will occur.

I have included a brief and well written article on class rank by Sarah McKibben.  Although no decisions have been made about class rank and GPA, it is important that we begin to have these conversations and, as a community, come to a deeper understanding of this issue.

I hope you enjoy the article and please do not hesitate to reach out with any questions or concerns.

Stepping Out of Rank

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Teacher Mindset and Student Success

If you've been following the transition that is taking place at Belmont High School, you would know that this transition is having a direct impact on the work teachers are doing in the classroom. One often overlooked piece of the transition is the shift in mindset (or perspective) that teachers must undergo in order to be successful in a competency-based teaching and learning model. Simply identifying standards, writing proficiency scales, posting learning targets, and reporting out on a 4-point scale is not enough to improve student achievement.

The impact of this work on teachers is significant and multi-faceted.  One of the most profound implications of the transition is the shift in emphasis from covering material to ensuring students have actually learned it.  This represents a subtle but significant change in how teachers must approach their practice.  In the world we all grew up in, it was common for a teacher to assign work from a chapter in a textbook, deliver instruction from the front of the room (often in the form of notes), assign classwork and homework, and give a test or quiz.  Then it was time to move on; whether students learned the material or not.  Feedback was minimal and often in the form of brief affirmations of performance, "Great Job!", "Excellent!", "Needs Improvement".  The quality of feedback was poor and sporadic.  If students did poorly they were often encouraged to study harder next time.

At Belmont High School, we are placing the emphasis on student learning rather than student work.  This concept is central to the philosophy of competency-based education.  Students must know exactly what they are expected to learn, how they are going to get there, and what success will look like.  Assessments are both formative and diagnostic.  Students are given opportunities to reflect on their progress so that they know where they are in relation to learning targets.

We have been working hard at BHS to foster a staff culture centered around reflective teaching and exemplary practice. We want all teachers to be able to answer the following questions:  What effect is my practice having on student learning? and, more importantly, How do I know?

During our most recent professional development day, we began a study of John Hattie's work on "Visible Learning." I've included a short video that highlights the eight mind frames that Hattie believes all teachers must hold. I firmly believe that these mind frames are essential to both teacher and student success.  I hope you enjoy the video.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Toxic Grading Practices

Last month's teacher workshop at Belmont High School was extremely productive.  We reviewed our goals for transitioning to competency-based education, studied the core principles that drive this work, and each teacher had the opportunity to reflect on how their practice will change in order to be successful in the months and years to come.

One of our work sessions was designed to build a better understanding of "toxic grading practices."  When we refer to "toxic grading practices," we are referring to any practice that contributes to a student's grade being less accurate than it ought to be.  One of the core principles of competency-based education is that academic performance is monitored and reported separately from work habits, character traits, and behaviors such as attendance and class participation.

This principle is often misunderstood and misapplied in schools and classrooms that remove deadlines for turning in work and fail to hold students accountable for their actions.  At Belmont High School, we believe deeply in the value of a strong work ethic and student accountability.  We also believe that it is part of our responsibility to cultivate a strong work ethic in our students and that the ability to meet deadlines is important in school and in life. The claims we make about academic achievement, however, must be accurate.  Academic success must be defined by the achievement of expected standards and must be an accurate reflection of what students know and are able to do.

Equally important, behaviors such as meeting deadlines, responsibility, and work ethic must also be valued and reported on separately (we would expect to see a correlation between work ethic and academic performance).

This change in perspective requires significant challenges to how teachers approach their practice. Teachers are rethinking the ways in which they manage their gradebooks, how they categorize and weigh assignments, and how they assess and record student progress.  The change process is not easy.  I've been impressed with our teachers willingness and ability to collaborate and share ideas to develop viable solutions and first steps to improving our grading and reporting practices.

I've included a short video of writer and consultant Doug Reeves talking to a group of educators about common "toxic grading practices." We are already working to eliminate these practices from BHS and I hope the video is helpful to parents who are still developing an understanding of the rationale for our transition work.  Reeves has a bit of an edge to his delivery and I think his take on student accountability and "getting the work done" is spot on.  I hope you find the video helpful.

Doug Reeves - Toxic Grading Practices