October 8, 2007
By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — A change in the way Vergennes Union High School teachers assign letter grades has sparked concerns, mostly among parents of high-achieving students, that it may be more difficult for their children to earn top grades, get onto the school’s honor roll, and get into colleges.
Four dozen parents met with VUHS Co-principal Ed Webbley last Wednesday to discuss the grading changes, the most significant of which is actually at the other end of the spectrum: Essentially, 70 is the new 60 — students now must earn at least a grade of 70 to pass a course and stay eligible for sports. At the same time, students will also have to earn a 93 to get an A, and an 85 to get a B.
VUHS administrators made that change, Webbley said, in tandem with a scheduling tweak: Students now have two 25-minute periods free daily in which they can meet with teachers to get help learning material and improving grades.
Webbley said the grading and scheduling changes are the first volleys in an effort to “raise the bar” academically for the school, which at this point is sending what he called an unacceptably low 51 percent of its students onto further college or technical education.
He noted, for example, that Champlain Valley Union and Essex high schools send closer to 80 percent of their students forward.
“Our social mission has got to be to lift up the community in that way. If we could say that 100 percent of our kids were employable and that 80 percent of our kids are going onto college, then we would be a success story,” Webbley said. “That’s the five-year goal that’s driving raising the bar.”
Webbley believes the school should be asking more of its students.
“I’m at school six or seven, and I’ve never seen a grading system that began with a floor of 60,” Webbley said. “I’m not sure we want to pass out to the public or to anybody else or to colleges that we pass kids that can only do 60 or 61 percent of a given topic or discipline.”
And at the same time, he wants the community to understand that VUHS teachers will also make good use of an extra 250 minutes a week to work with students.
“We’re raising the bar for kids consistently … We’re also raising the bar for teachers by giving teachers that 250 minutes a week in the middle of the day,” he said, adding, “Now the onus is not only on the kids to jump a little higher to meet that new bar, that new height, but on the teachers as well.”
Feelings in the community are mixed about the grading and scheduling changes, but not all negative.
Shirley Parfitt, parent of a VUHS sophomore, said she has a wait-and-see attitude. Parfitt is skeptical that “changing the way we assign a grade … raises academic standards,” but hopes the move will prove to be the start of a larger effort to improve the school’s academics.
“I think we need to be careful,” she said. “We’ve got to be sure not to look at it as a quick fix.”
To Ferrisburgh’s Annie Cohn the changes were “making sense,” and she appreciated almost 50 parents coming to VUHS to discuss education.
“I think it’s one way to get the ball rolling … They want more kids to be successful,” Cohn said. “It got a lot of discussion about curriculum going.”
Another Ferrisburgh parent, Rick Kerschner, said more, but not all, began to understand the change after the Wednesday meeting with Webbley.
“My sense of the meeting is that people are generally on board with it now that people know more about it,” said Kerschner, a VUHS board member who said he was speaking as a parent on this issue.
VUHS administrators have received little feedback on the requirement that students earn a 70 to pass a course. But the switch to the grading system — one also used at Essex High School and St. Johnsbury Academy — caused many parents to wonder if their children’s marks would look inferior to their peers at other schools.
One initial concern was that inferior letter grades could hurt VUHS students’ college admissions’ chances. But Webbley said he checked with admissions officers at three schools — the University of Vermont, Southwest Missouri State and the Community College of Vermont — and was told the VUHS system was fine.
Students will still be assigned numerical grades, which in turn will be combined into a grade-point average (GPA) that VUHS will provide to colleges, along with students’ class rank. Webbley said that is the information that colleges want.
Middlebury College Associate Director of Admissions Bert Phinney said he could not speak for all schools, but said the VUHS grading approach would be acceptable at Middlebury and similar institutions.
“If they have a class rank, he’s right … We will look at any grade within the context at the participating school at which it is given,” Phinney said.
Some parents, including Ferrisburgh’s Eugenie Delaney, said they were worried that the new system would make it more difficult for children to be recognized on the honor roll.
“When the honor roll is published in the newspaper the numerical definition of A and B should be stated for each school so it is clear that Vergennes students are being judged at a different and higher standard,” Delaney wrote in an e-mail.
Webbley and other administrators wrestled with the honor roll question after the Wednesday meeting, where the issue was raised. VUHS is considering a purely numerical system and could base its honor roll strictly on GPA.
But VUHS chose an intermediate course: Honor roll grades will be based on the previous system, in which a 90 is an A-minus, and an 84 is a B, for example.
“For at least the next two years we’re going to keep it at the same standard we have now,” Webbley said.
Webbley also said the new system will produce a more accurate GPA (see box).
When VUHS has calculated GPAs, it has not used the original numerical grade, Webbley said, but the translated value. Therefore, a 93 had the same value to a student as a 96 — both were 4.0s when averaged. Similarly, 83s equaled 86s, 77s equaled 79s, etc.
Webbley told parents when the new calculations were applied to the top 30 senior students, all 30 moved in the rankings.
That change sparked some concern.
“It is a bit disturbing that so many students’ scores and placements changed when comparing the old and new systems,” Delaney wrote.
But Webbley said he was surprised when he realized the GPAs were not based on the original numerical grades, as the new GPAs will be. Students with 96s will do better than students with 93s in the new system, for example, he said, and that’s as it should be.
“I definitely see that as a fairness issue,” he said. “Because we clustered in the old system … the kids at the lower end of that cluster, consistently, when you recalculate under the new system, his grade will drop slightly … If they’re at the high end of the clusters consistently throughout their grades, get a lot of B-pluses, get a lot of A-pluses, things like that, they actually do better under the new system than the old system. It’s more accurate.”
One result of the current debate will be regular repeats of the Oct. 3 meeting with Webbley, which he hopes will be as well attended. Webbley said he didn’t mind being on the hot seat if parents show that level of concern.
“It was great, and we made a pledge we’re going to continue doing it on a monthly basis,” he said.
Kerschner believes more meetings like last week’s will help parents and students deal with change as VUHS continues to look to raise the bar.
“I think people came away more informed, and I felt the tension level was reduced. I don’t know if it’s completely solved,” Kerschner said. “There are a lot of changes going forward.”