Haverhill High Principal Beth Kitsos, left, and Superintendent James F. Scully defended the "mastery grading system" implemented at HHS at Thursday night's School Committee meeting.
A new grading system at Haverhill High School that measures what students learn rather than how hard they try is proving controversial for some School Committee members.
In the second year of a three-year roll-out, the new grading system puts emphasis on proof of subject mastery rather than student behaviors, Principal Beth Kitsos told School Committee members.
Kitsos said high school grading practices were called into question when administrators noticed that HHS students had class grades above state and national averages while their standardized test scores fell below state and national averages.
A study showed a wide variety of grading practices, even among teachers of the same subjects, Kitsos said.
Superintendent James F. Scully said the new grading system was designed to prevent the city from graduating students who are not prepared to enter college.
Two years ago, a student from Haverhill and another from an “affluent” neighboring community were accepted to Northern Essex Community College only to discover that they were unable to read at a college level, he said. Both students were earning A’s and B’s in their high school courses, Scully said.
“We decided we were doing a disservice to students at all levels, and determined we wanted to focus more on what and how we wanted students to learn,” Kitsos said.
Under the new system, a student’s grade indicates how much learning of the subject matter has taken place and stresses the results of tests, quizzes, projects, performances, essays, research papers, lab experiments and book reports.
Grades don’t include things like attendance, effort, timeliness, following class rules, tardiness, and completing homework assignments.
Kitsos said the grading system was designed to level the field for all students.
But some School Committee members said they believe removing behavioral considerations from grading decisions could harm students who try hard but don’t perform well on formal assessments.
“Some kids aren’t good at taking tests, but that doesn’t mean they don’t know or understand the material,” said committee member Scott W. Wood. “I’m not convinced that effort and commitment shouldn’t count for something.”
Kitsos countered that under the new grading system, students have the opportunity to seek additional help and to re-take tests in order to improve their scores.
“We’re grading on what they know,” she said.
Wood also questioned whether Kitsos had the right to change the high school grading system without committee approval, and asked School Committee President Gail Sullivan to seek a legal opinion on the issue.
School Committee member Paul A. Magliocchetti questioned allowing students to take a test more than once in order to improve their scores.
“I think it’s unfair to let a student take a test four or five times to get the same grade as a student who took it once,” he said.
Kitsos argued that the point of the test is to prove a student has mastered the subject matter. The route to the result isn’t as important as the end result, she said. Teachers decide how many chances students have to re-take a test. Most give one or two chances, Kitsos said.
Magliocchetti and committee member Shaun P. Toohey criticized the grading system’s lack of emphasis on completing homework assignments.
“I get the concept of mastery, but homework is what creates the mastery because when you’re doing the assignments, the repetition ... practice is what creates mastery,” Magliocchetti said.
Toohey told Kitsos he worries that students will stop doing homework if they know it doesn’t make up a substantial percentage of their grades. He said he worries the scoring system could undermine parents who encourage their kids to be engaged in athletics as well as academics, and to try hard in school.
“Half the battle is showing up,” Toohey said.