Monday, February 16, 2009

CO: School district does away with grade levels

If it ends social promotion it might be a good thing but it sounds like just another starry-eyed idea that only works with an exceptionally high level of teacher committment -- something unlikely in a large and unionized public school district

School districts across the US are trying to improve student performance and low test scores. But few have taken as radical an approach as Adams 50. For starters, when the elementary and middle-school students come back next fall, there won't be any grade levels - or traditional grades, for that matter. And those are only the most visible changes in a district that, striving to reverse dismal test scores and a soaring dropout rate, is opting for a wholesale reinvention of itself, rather than the incremental reforms usually favored by administrators.

The 10,000-student district in the metropolitan Denver area is at the forefront of a new "standards-based" educational approach that has achieved success in individual schools and in some small districts in Alaska, but has yet to be put to the test on such a large scale in an urban district. "There was a sense of urgency to attend to what wasn't happening for kids here," says Roberta Selleck, district superintendent, explaining why she decided to go with a drastic approach. "When you see the stats for the whole school district over time, we realized we are disconnecting [from] our kids."

The change that's getting by far the most attention is the decision to do away with traditional grade levels - for kids younger than eighth grade, this first year, though the district plans to phase in the reform through high school a year at a time. Ultimately, there will be 10 multiage levels, rather than 12 grades, and students might be in different levels depending on the subject. They'll move up only as they demonstrate mastery of the material.

But Dr. Selleck and others are quick to emphasize that that's only one piece of a radically different, more student-centered, approach to learning - and that it's not the same as tracking, the currently out-of-favor system of grouping students by ability.

The district is training teachers to involve students in the lesson plan in a far greater way than before - the students articulate their goals and develop things such as a code of conduct as a classroom. And when children fall short of understanding the material, they keep working at it. The only "acceptable" score to move on to the next lesson is the equivalent of a "B" in normal grading - hopefully showing proficiency and giving kids a better foundation as they move on to more advanced concepts. Advocates sometimes describe it as flipping the traditional system around so that time, rather than mastery of material, is the variable.

While the idea of "standards-based education," as it's often known, has been around for a while, the only public district where it's been tried for any length of time is in Alaska, where the Chugach district - whose 250 students are scattered over 22,000 square miles - went from the lowest performing district in the state to Alaska's highest-performing quartile in five years in the 1990s, a shift the former superintendent, Richard DeLorenzo, attributes to the new philosophy. "We saw how radical a reinvention needs to happen," says Mr. DeLorenzo, who is serving as a consultant to Adams 50 and is now the founder of the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, which is seeking to spread the model.

In Adams 50, the challenges aren't quite so severe as they were in Chugach, which had only had one college graduate come out of its schools in the 20 years before DeLorenzo implemented the reforms. But the district, which has a 58 percent graduation rate, has been on an academic watch list for several years now, and has seen a drastically shifting student population in which percentages of minorities, non-English speakers, and low-income kids have shot up.

Selleck decided the district needed a massive transformation, and got the OK from the state. This year, the district is beginning to phase in the changes before all the schools switch to the new, gradeless system next year. One elementary school is serving as a pilot program, and many of the 300 or so teachers who have undergone training from DeLorenzo are implementing a modified approach in their classrooms - albeit still in traditional grade levels.


Shock! Horror! Even some British government schools think that all students are not equal

High-performing comprehensives are "screening" 16-year-olds by telling them they cannot study A-levels unless they score as many as six Bs at GCSE. Some schools believe a C grade, the government measure of a "good" GCSE, is so devalued that it gives little evidence of ability.

Policies pursued by some comprehensives are now more restrictive than grammars that are open about selection. At Fortismere school in Muswell Hill, north London, pupils must score five Bs, including English and maths, to study academic subjects at A-level. Other pupils must opt for "applied" A-levels, which are more vocational. At Fulford school, York, pupils need five Bs for academic A-levels. Steve Smith, the head, said: "You can get students through to a C but a large part of that is staff giving support. For A-levels you have to have independent learning."

Professor Alan Smithers of Buckingham University said: "Sixth-form selection is an unacknowledged feature of our system."


Many Australian High School students can't read and write

Ever-declining standards. I think our leftist "educators" will only be happy when NO-ONE can read and write

Reading skills at some Queensland high schools have slumped to alarming levels with about one in every three students considered to be reading below their age level, according to teachers and private tutors. And in a parallel problem some students are being taught one subject by as many as 12 different teachers because of staff shortages in state high schools.

An internal screening test on Year 8 students at one school has found that most of the struggling students - one-third of that year level - were reading at the standard of a Year 4 student. The worst readers among those Year 8s - about one-sixth of the entire group needing learning support - were reading at a level of Year 3 student or below, the tests revealed.

Frustrated school learning support staff say they have begun to refer students to reading lessons outside schools, as the curriculum is failing to address the problem. Their claims are backed by private tutors interviewed by The Sunday Mail, who say they regularly encounter teenagers reading three to four years below their age. It is understood the internal testing that highlights the problem was done in schools at Logan and the northern Gold Coast. But many educators say similar reading level issues can be found state-wide. Gold Coast-based private tutor Dr Bruce Cruicks is teaching 15 state high school students with reading problems: "Some of these kids came to me with no reading level at all. They could have been in Grade 3 or 4."

A Brisbane-based tutor, who asked not to be identified to shield his students, said many were initially up to four years behind in their reading. A state school teacher who was involved in recent testing of literacy levels, and also asked not to be named, said: " Some kids are really stuck at such a basic level, and the gap between them and other students just keeps widening. Yet we get told (by governments) that (the reading level) is getting better."

Education Queensland does not gather each school's internal testing data on reading levels, and the only official guide can be found in State Budget figures. Those statistics back up the concerns of education leaders, with national benchmark figures showing that reading for Year 7 students has dropped by more than 11 percentage points in three years, down from around 93 per cent in the 2004-05 period.

Queensland Teachers Union president Steve Ryan said he believed the State and Federal governments should focus on providing more resources, rather than worrying about preparing students for national benchmark testing. An Education Queensland spokesman said the Government was investing $18 million implementing a literacy framework.

On a second front underlining more problems in education, sources say some students are being taught one subject by as many as 12 different teachers as state high schools attempt to deal with staff shortages. And when substitute teachers can't be slotted in, classes are often combined. At one school, three senior classes were combined and seated in a sports hall recently with the students told to do crosswords because of a lack of teachers, the sources told The Sunday Mail.

Figures released by the State Government show an extra 5400 students enrolled in state schools this year - leaving a shortfall of 150 teachers. Education Minister Rod Welford has acknowledged a lack of maths and science teachers, employing more than 530 graduate teachers this year in the face of a 17 per cent jump in primary and secondary teacher resignations since 2003. But The Sunday Mail understands up to eight teachers at one school, employed to teach maths, are only qualified in physical education. "They are just bringing in primary school and excess PE teachers," a source revealed.

But Mr Welford denies the system will be unable to cope with an increased influx of students this year. "Our government plans for the future, continually monitoring regions with high population growth to ensure there are local state school options for all Queenslanders," he said. "That's why we opened three new schools on the northern Gold Coast this year, to cater for population increases in one the state's fastest-growing regions. "We've also opened a new school this year north of Brisbane, another fast-growing area."

Mr Welford said there has been unprecedented growth in prep enrolments, with an increase of almost 1900 on last year. He said upper secondary schools also had more than 750 extra students enrolling in Year 11 and more than 1000 in Year 12. "All these new students create a need for more teachers so that we can continue to meet our class size targets, which are among the lowest in the country."

Mr Welford says the 150 new teaching spots would be permanent appointments in mainly manual arts, maths and science. "These are roles which have been traditionally difficult to fill because their skills were so much in demand outside of teaching," he said. "With demand slowing in other sectors we are hoping to see more of these skilled workers moving back into teaching where the jobs are available, secure and stable."


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