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Fort Schools Struggling With “Performance-Based Education” Grading System


By:  David Deschesne

Fort Fairfield Journal, April 26, 2017


   The familiar letter grades of A—F and 60—100 are slowly being phased out at public schools across the State in order to be in compliance with a law passed by the Maine legislature last year.  The law, which was signed by the governor, required schools in Maine to begin a process of phasing out the old grading system and replace it with a “proficiency based” system for Math, English and ultimately Science classes.

   According to the Maine Department of Education’s website, Proficiency-Based Education (PBE) “refers to any system of academic instruction, assessment, grading and reporting that is based on students demonstrating mastery of the knowledge and skills they are expected to learn before they progress to the next lesson, get promoted to the next grade level or receive a diploma.”

   The PBE grading system differs radically from the former letter grade system of A thru F. PBE uses a four digit number system graduated in scale to show a student’s progress at every particular point in the course study. The points on that scale are roughly defined as:


1. Does not meet the standard

2. Partially meets the standard

3. Meets the standard

4. Exceeds the standard

   Under this standard a “1” and “2” would be considered “failing,” while either a “3” or “4” would be passing.  There is no sliding scale like the former 60 through 100 or F through A grading system used.

   Because the letter grading system is being phased out, by 2021 there will be no “Honor Roll” list because the four number standards-based designation system does not correspond to letter grades.  Because of this, there will be no class standings and a new way of determining valedictorian and salutatorian for graduating seniors will need to be developed.

   The current 8th grade class at Fort Fairfield Middle School began being graded under the new diploma's grading and reporting system last year, as seventh graders, and will be the first class at FFHS to graduate using it.

   A PBE Teacher's Handbook has been developed to help guide teachers through the new grading system and was presented to the MSAD #20 school board at  their April meeting.  “The handbook is a way for us to hopefully provide consistency for teachers because it's a different way of grading,” said Jane McCall, Curriculum Coordinator, as the book was presented to the school board.  “For example, before a student received a 4 they may have had several attempts at demonstrating proficiency on that particular power standard.  In this example they may have gotten a 1 and a 1 and a 2 and a 2 and a 3 - multiple grades prior to that 4.  But ultimately those scores prior to the 4 are not averaged together.  So, if you take an assessment and you get a 1 you have an attempt to demonstrate proficiency once you've had a chance to have it either re-taught, or learn more.  Then you might get a 2 and a 2 and work your way up.  But once you get a 4 it is a 4, it is not an average of all your grades prior to it.  It's very different from the grading system we all grew up with.  Typically, grades all get averaged together but under PBE, they do not.” 

   FFMHS Principal John Kaleta further elucidated  the new grading system.  “The reality is because Power Standards can go throughout the whole year, every quarter is really just a progress report and the grade that really matters is the end of the year grade,” Kaleta explained to the school board.  “It's a progress report that lets you know how they're doing at that time but at the end of the year, all of the tests on that Power Standard basically get moded, which is the most common number.  So if they got three 3's and two 2's the individual will get a three for a grade, which is proficiency.”

   McCall said it has been a bit of work to combine the new “1-4” grading system to the former, conventional system that relied on percentages or letter grades.  “We had a lot of discussion about going straight 1 through 4 scoring and not trying to mesh it with our traditional scoring system of 80's 100's or A's, B's and C's.  Really, for the schools that have gone out on a limb to do that, it hasn't gone well for most of them.  We were very leery about going straight proficiency-based.”

   She explained the widely divergent formats of the two grading systems makes them in many ways incompatible with each other.  “The scoring in Proficiency-Based does not really mesh with the 80's, 90's and 100's; they're really two separate entities that we're trying to marry together that don't want to be married to each other.  So it's really awkward, but we worked our way through it and have tried several different ways of trying to get it.”

      Currently, FFMHS is adopting a combination of the old grading system and the new one.  “We don't like the hybrid model.  We're not in love with it philosophically, it's not what we believe in,” McCall told the school board,  “But we really feel like it's the safety net for us for a couple of years until we transition into this new system.”

   McCall said she and her team of educators are struggling with how to determine class standings for graduation when the PBE model is fully implemented.   “Because the class standings for valedictorian, salutatorian, and your scholarships are all based on that Grade Point Average, if we don't have those traditional number grades, how do we determine who will be salutatorian, valedictorian and class ranking?  There's a lot to work through before we can completely ditch the traditional scoring system.”

    “We finally had to come to the conclusion that we're probably not going to have this perfect answer right away.  It's going to take some time for us to transition and work through it.  However, we've just got to get things going and start somewhere then tweak and fix things along the way.”