A panel of Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) teachers and administrators answered parents’ questions about proficiency-based learning (PBL) on February 5 in the Harwood library. Superintendent Brigid Nease moderated.
The focus of the evening was to answer questions that families sent via email to Nease. Nease said she heard from 17 families and that all questions would eventually be shared.
She explained that she needed to go through a process of depersonalizing the emails before making them part of the public record. “These emails sometimes give personal information. That will be redacted before they are shared,” she said.
Topics that drew the most follow-up from the two dozen parents gathered were questions about why Harwood doesn’t have partial number grading (sometimes called granular grading) and how colleges will interpret Harwood’s PBL transcript when it goes into action for the Class of 2020.
PARTIAL NUMBER GRADES
On the issue of partial number grades (adding 2.5 or 3.5, etc), music teacher Stefanie Weigand said that the grading rubrics are carefully worded in a series of four levels of increasing complexity. “Adding levels in between doesn’t work and is very, very subjective,” she said.
“In a system that is striving for objectivity, it just doesn’t fit in,” she said.
Jessica Deane, science teacher, said that the rubrics are defined by verbs that express a progression of learning. To add more categories for grading would require defining other levels of understanding. “I don’t know what a mid-score looks like,” she said.
Several parents pushed back on this idea of complete objectivity in the rubrics. Aren’t verbs also subjective? Couldn’t more categories be made, allowing students to show more specificity in their learning path?
“What analysis was done by the Harwood team as to why [partial number grading] was not appropriate to implement here?” asked Jim Caffry, referring to other schools who have chosen to do so.
Sheila Soule, HUUSD director of curriculum, said that Harwood’s staff had done a lot of work to make sure the four-level rubrics are consistently used and understood by all teachers.
“We’re not getting work from students that doesn’t fit into our rubrics,” she said. “If we did, we would revisit.”
Parents’ concerns are related to the college admissions process where some colleges have reported that more variation in grades between a 3.0 and a 4.0 can make a difference in evaluating a student.
“While the admissions leaders present unanimously agreed that students from proficiency-based systems receive no disadvantage in the admissions process, they also caution that lack of information or transparency in transcripts or school profiles can present a hurdle in an admissions officer’s attempt to accurately assess a student’s achievements,” reported by a white paper published by the New England School of Higher Education.
The “exemplar grading model” provided by Great Schools Partnership, a consultant used by Harwood on PBL, consists of 1.0, 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0 for grading assignments.
Harwood did make one change this year. While keeping whole numbers only on individual assignments, they average these into a decimal point scores for progress reports and transcripts.
Some parents argue this is not enough.
Director of school counseling Sally McCarthy said that the transcript is the “first level that distinguishes” a student to colleges. The choice of classes also matters, she said, and students can also distinguish themselves through dual-enrollment and flexible pathways that allow internships.
“They are not comparing students at Harwood to students from another high school. They are comparing them to other students at Harwood,” she said.
Several parents raised the concern that an explanation of the new transcript has yet to be written, making any comparison difficult.
“The challenge for us is figuring out how to present in a school profile what a 3.3 means,” said McCarthy, adding that they are working on the school profile for the Class of 2020.
“We’ll reach out to colleges with our transcript and see what questions they have. That’s the logical next step,” said McCarthy.
Several parents expressed appreciation of the meeting and of the shift to PBL. They left with a lot more answers and some lingering concerns, especially about the Class of 2020, who will be the first to apply to college with the new transcript.
“I love this school, and [my daughter] is happy here. I just don’t want to shoot her in the foot because of one piece of paper. It’s kind of a big deal,” said a concerned parent of a sophomore and the last person to speak to the panel.
This process will be repeated in March. Parents are encouraged to send their specific questions about the new system to Nease at