By contributing reporter Jennifer Bonniwell
Wellesley High School parents laid out their concerns about standards-based grading at an in-person open forum on March 9, while school leaders continued to press the case for the new grading model.
Parents overwhelmingly criticized the standards-based grading model that launched during the pandemic in fall 2020. Parents said the grading system is causing more stress for their children, is not consistent between classes, is hurting high achieving students, and makes it harder for parents to learn if their children are struggling in classes.
Even before the meeting, WHS leaders said they planned to adjust the grading system and plan to propose changes before the end of this school year.
“The reality is that in the implementation of standards, we’ve left some students and families really confused and that has caused stress,” said Wellesley High School Principal Dr. Jamie Chisum said during the Jan. 31 School Committee meeting. “We haven’t done a good enough job of getting the information to families on what feedback we’ve given to kids. We haven’t done a good enough job of being really clear with kids on how those grades are determined after we’ve given feedback.”
“We will make significant adjustments. Where we are isn’t working,” Chisum said during the March 9 forum.
What is Standards-Based Grading
Standards-based grading assesses students based on their mastery of a single skill rather than an average of tests at the end of each section of material. For example, a class may have five to eight skills during a single quarter and students are graded on their mastery of each. Some teachers give a full letter grade for each skill mastered; others grade based on a weighted average of scores for each skill.
In a presentation to the School Committee on Jan. 31, WHS leaders said one of the benefits of standards-based grading is that students receive specific feedback on skills they have not yet mastered so they can focus on learning those skills to get a better grade.
“Standards prevent a student who gets a bad grade from thinking, ‘I’m just bad at math.’ This allows students to get feedback and find out what they are good at and what they can work on,” Superintendent Dr. David Lussier said during the Jan. 31 meeting starting at about 28 minutes into the Wellesley Media recording ( also see a slide presentation). “Students should not be graded on their worst day.”
Chisum said that since WHS transcripts only show the final year grade—not the quarter grades—standards-based grading more accurately reflects a student’s progress by the end of the year.
“If I get to the end of the year and my proficiency in English is the same as yours, and you had a really bad first quarter but you know every bit as much English as I do by the end of the course, why don’t we deserve the same grade?” Chisum said. “If you know the same amount I do at the end of the class, the argument under standards is that you should get the same grade as I do.”
Chisum noted that this extreme version of standards grading —only your final skills matter —is not yet in place at WHS. Instead, most standards-based classes assess skills using tests and quizzes that are weighted to give more credit to more recent work.
This is most apparent in the foreign language department, which has been using standards-based grading for nearly 15 years. As an example, a first-quarter grade in Chinese is weighted less than the fourth-quarter grade. A student who gets a C for the first two quarters and As for the final two quarters could end up with an A as a final grade on her transcript.
Recent WHS Grad Speaks Out
One of the most impactful comments in the March 9 forum was by recent WHS graduate Tom Cahaly, who was in 11th grade when WHS adopted standards-based grading for his math and history classes (See video at about 53 minutes).
Cahaly, who was named a 2022 valedictorian with a near perfect GPA, said that in practice the grading system added more stress for students. In math, for example, the most recent assessment in each skill accounted for 50 percent of the grade in that standard, he said.
“The justification for this was that our skills were supposed to improve over the year with feedback. It was also supposed to remove the stress of making mistakes earlier in the semester. However, I and others thought this policy actually added much more stress because the beginning of the year barely mattered in the grading calculation while the last bit was worth 50 percent of the grade, which makes no sense.”
Cahaly urged the district to allow “teachers to enact their own fair and equitable grading standards in their class. As someone else said, they’ve been doing this for decades. It should stay that way.”
Parents repeatedly urged district leaders to better explain how the grading system works and why it has supplanted traditional grading.
“I came tonight to learn, and you guys were talking in circles,” said the father of a 9th grader at WHS to a round of applause.
More applause followed a mother of two students at WHS who said, “No offense, David [Lussier], but I don’t really understand what you are saying.”
High Achievers Confused, Too
Several parents complained that while struggling learners might have a better chance to show improvement, it left high achievers confused about how to get top grades. For example, a mother gave examples of students who earned all top grades for assessments but was given a B in the class.
Several current WHS students said they didn’t know how to earn an A in classes, naming specifically 10th grade English and AP French. One student said she found the new standards even harder to understand than traditional grading because the skills were described as “explain” or “analyze.”
“How can a teacher decide when I’ve done enough to explain or analyze?” she said.
Lack of Feedback for Parents
One mother also complained that she hasn’t been able to tell when her son is floundering because of the complicated scoring system in standards-based grading. She said that at one point, her son was so confused by the grading system that he “quiet-quit school,” meaning he stopped doing homework and studying without telling her for several weeks. While she is disappointed in her son, as this resulted in a flurry of extra work, she was even more shocked that she didn’t receive any alert from his teachers or counselors. Further, neither the parents’ Powerschool site nor his Canvas online folders kept track of homework assignments, so she couldn’t tell he had stopped participating.
Chisum admitted the Powerschool app that is available to parents to view grades doesn’t show the nuances of standards-based grading. He told the School Committee that the district was looking at alternatives to better communicate with parents.
Being Graded on Worst Day
Several parents took issue that standards-based grading was intended to ensure “students are not graded on their worst day,” as both Chisum and Lussier said repeatedly.
One father reiterated, “I don’t think there is any class in which a student is judged by any single event. They do homework, they do papers. I don’t see any problem here.”
Parent Neil Glick said traditional grading should be able to adjust for a student who had a bad first quarter and then improved dramatically.
“If there’s a teacher who doesn’t recognize that improvement and that’s not reflected in their grading system, then you have a problem with your teacher and not the grading system,” Glick said.
How WHS Got Here
WHS has been using standards-based grading in its foreign language instruction for 15 years and its optional Evolutions program for nine years, Chisum said.
Then, in fall 2020, WHS expanded standards-based grading because pandemic shortened teaching time and forced teachers to dramatically change curricula. The school year started late in 2020, resumed in a hybrid class model, and after just a few weeks forced a full online schedule again due to a COVID outbreak.
“We knew we wouldn’t be able to cover the same amount of material because we didn’t have the same amount of time with kids, and we had really different ways we had to connect with kids during the time we did have,” Chisum said during the Jan. 31 School Committee meeting.
“Because of that, we said we need to boil these down to the really essential things that the kids need to learn in these courses because that’s probably all we’ll be able to get to: standards.”
Chisum and Lussier also said that some of the change was in response to the NEASC Accreditation process from 2018. Chisum told the School Committee that NEASC’s recommendations included developing more specific grading criteria, better communication from teachers to students about learning expectations and revising grading to ensure consistency.
WHS plans to propose improvements to grading before the end of this school year to launch in fall 2023. Chisum said the changes will be released in writing and parents will have a chance to review and comment.
LADY WELLESLEY says
Massachusetts School Rankings per U.S. News and World Report: #10 Dover-Sherborn; #12 Westwood; #13 Belmont; #21 Winchester; #32 Wellesley. Adminstrators: Listen and implement parents list of school improvements.
J covino says
Why are Dr Lussier, the School Committee and Mr Chisum completely disregarding students and parents concerns? Many people stood up to comment and many begged them to put an END to SBG. What will it take for them to listen?? Why did the administration in Weston revert back to traditional grading system? This is not a case of our kids complaining about the food this is going to impact their future. Thank you for bringing this subject to the Swellesley Report. It is important for ALL residents to understand what is going on in our schools.
Wellesley is clearly doing the right thing with SBG but they need help with implementation.
I think you’re miss informed. This administration needs to change along with canceling SBG. We’ve been sued and lost for discrimination against students, fallen consistently in the school rankings for the past ten years since Dr. Lussier arrived, and have a school bullying problem that reached the level of criminal assault that was mentioned in the WSJ and buried by this administration from parents for over six months. Sad times indeed for the entire Wellesley public school system.