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Critics say proficiency not making the grade

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A former Eagle Point teacher and School Board member is speaking out against the district’s model of proficiency grading, saying it lowers standards to increase graduation rates.

Jim Mannenbach said the grading system gives a false impression to increase graduation rates, although the trajectory of graduation rates in Eagle Point since the switch to proficiency-based grading suggests no unprecedented gains.

Mannenbach, who has a multi-chapter history of clashing with district leadership, is pushing for a revision of Eagle Point’s proficiency grading system. Over the past decade, districts across Jackson County and Oregon increasingly have switched to proficiency grading, which measures assessment standards.

Proficiency grading measures how much a student knows by the end of a grading period, rather than averaging scores throughout a term on a zero-to-100 percent scale.

Students receive whole number scores that, in Eagle Point, range from 1 to 4. Th gey receive a passing C or B grade if they achieve proficiency, with A awarded for mastery on a standard. Those letter grades given depend on the “cut scores,” which determine the score thresholds to earn each grade.

Eagle Point’s cut scores are set so that students earning a C grade must achieve a minimum average score of 2.21 out of 4, according to a document produced last spring by a group of teachers in a Problem Solver Professional Learning Community at Eagle Point High School.

They were concerned, they wrote, that the district is lowering standards under the current grading system.

“Since we, as a school district, have adopted a growth mindset and put great stock in high expectations, our grading policies should be in line with those same principles,” the teacher recommendation says. “The consensus was that it did not.”

The teachers recommended that the district bump up the cut scores in the proficiency grading scale, so that the minimum average score to earn a C would be 2.5 out of 4.

The justification they gave was that in some situations, students can pass an assessment without achieving proficiency in even half of the standards. They gave examples of an assessment based on four standards where a student scored 2, 2, 2 and 3 — so, proficient only in the fourth standard. If those scores are averaged, though, the student scored a 2.25. That student would pass with a C under the current model.

Those lower thresholds for students to pass their classes, Mannenbach said, make it easier for them to graduate. Among the documents he sent last week to board members, one was titled, “Why it is easier to pass a class and graduate at Eagle Point High School.”

“I’ve heard teachers say that they believe it’s just to raise graduation rates, is the reason it was done, but I don’t know,” he said.

But district leadership, including Superintendent Cynda Rickert, said that the district likely will continue with the grading model as is. Besides saying that the district needs to not introduce more changes since switching to proficiency grading in 2013, she also defended the model itself.

“It’s based on best practices,” she said. “We really work hard to make sure that what we do is research-based and data-driven.”

Teachers also proposed that they be allowed to give 0 scores if, for example, a student did not turn in any work. Under Eagle Point’s current system, students never earn below a 1 score, indicating “beginning” proficiency.

“Why would there be a 0 score?” Rickert said. “Would any of our students be considered a 0?”

If students didn’t turn in any work or participate in an assessment, Rickert said, they would still meet “beginning” level of proficiency.

“I think it’s more positive to stay with a mindset of ‘you’re beginning,’” she said.

Proficiency grading scales vary among districts, and in some districts, even schools have different systems.

South Medford High School, for example, grades on a 0-to-5 point scale, with a 2.5 minimum cut score for a C. It began with proficiency grading in high schools and middle schools and extended it to elementary schools this year. Medford switched grades seven through 12 to proficiency grading in 2012.

In Central Point, schools and departments vary in their grading policies. Superintendent Samantha Steele said that rather than being top-down, the district tries out policies like proficiency grading and scales things up if principals and administrators favor them.

“That tends to be the way we do things here instead of saying, ‘here’s the answer, everybody implement,’” she said.

Despite Mannenbach’s assertion about Eagle Point School District leaders pressuring teachers to raise graduation rates, the district’s graduation rates have not showed dramatic increases since the switch to proficiency grading in the 2013-2014 school year.

In 2017, Eagle Point High School had a 79.31 percent graduation rate. In 2009, it was 75.1 percent, and in 2014, the end of the district’s first year with proficiency grading, it was 73.11 percent.

In 2009 Eagle Point School District’s graduation rate was 62 percent. In 2014, it dipped to 56.1 percent and has been climbing since. EPSD’s 2017 graduation rate was 65.12 percent.

With discontented rumblings echoing across the district, Eagle Point School Board members are taking some notice. The board held a brief discussion at its work session Dec. 12 after an Upper Rogue Independent article published on the same topic. The article also alleged issues including increased pressure on teachers to pass students.

Tony Lallo, a board member contacted by the URI reporter, said that he wanted to learn more about the proficiency grading system in light of the accusations of graduation rate and lowering standards.

Board Chair Nita Lundberg said that she expects Lallo to report back to the board in January or February.

“We simply ran out of time last night to truly give his questions the appropriate amount of time,” she said Thursday in a text message.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at ktornay@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497. Follow her on Twitter @ka_tornay.