By RACHEL COLEMAN
• Leader & Times
Amid the local controversy about a new grading method at Liberal High School, the name of college president Duane Dunn has served as a mascot for approval and condemnation.
“I’m worried about what the grading policy means for our students who are concurrently enrolled out at Seward County Community College,” said USD No. 480 board member Tammy Sutherland Abbott. “I’ve asked Dr. Dunn what he thinks.”
“We’ve communicated with Dr. Dunn as well,” said USD 480 superintendent Paul Larkin.
Supporters and detractors of the Framework for Grading seemed to hope Dunn would support their point of view.
And he does — for both of them.
“I hate to see our team in the school district having issues over how this program is implemented when deep down everyone wants to do what is best for the students,” Dunn said.
From his vantage point, some of the most heated issues are not cause for concern. For example, the worry that a partnership between SCCC and LHS might suffer on account of the pilot program, is unfounded.
“Our academic affairs committee met with the principal, Mr. (Keith) Adams, and the chair of our math division, Luke Dowell, and our academic affairs head Cynthia Rapp, read through copies of the policy. I’m glad we did all that,” Dunn said. “The more questions I ask, the more clarification we get.”
The policy “really doesn’t have an impact on concurrent enrollment because those are our classes, and they go under our syllabi rules,” Dunn noted.
That means LHS students taking U.S. History, College Algebra and Trigonometry or College Writing are in no danger of losing college credits because of high school policies.
Even so, the question of work habits remains. Parents who’ve objected to the pilot grading method at Liberal High School say their top concern is the effect the system will have on college-bound graduates. Naysayers worry that competency-based grading — a method that allows students to rework practice assignments when a test shows they don’t understand the material and then retake the test for full credit — will allow students to develop habits of laziness and procrastination, both liabilities at college.
Dunn said those questions are not new, nor are they confined to Liberal and Seward County. At the Kansas Board of Regents meeting this week, the subject of success in college claimed significant time and attention.
“We talked about that a lot,” he said. “Kansas has one of the highest rates of people attending college right out of high school, but one of the lowest rates of people completing a bachelor’s degree in six years. This is an issue across the state that’s sparked a lot of discussion, and I think that’s what LHS is trying to address: How are we, as a community, preparing people for life after high school?”
Dunn said the move toward “mastery” or “competency-based” grading is nothing new, though the terms might change.
“It’s a matter of terminology,” he said. “Unfortunately, people have gotten stuck on the term ‘no fail,’ and that’s not accurate. I’ve read the high school policy, and it is still possible for students to fail a class. That is clearly stated. I think maybe a lot of people haven’t seen the full plan.”
Educators who lean in the direction of competency-based grading are simply taking their jobs seriously, he noted.
“It all comes down to making sure the student knows the material before progressing to next level,” Dunn said. “If (the competency-based system) works for that student, that’s a really good learning model. They’re not socially progressing before they are ready.”
In terms of student work habits and character, Dunn said it’s important to recognize cultural and generational factors that come into play.
“It’s not inappropriate to use the term ‘lazy’ but it’s probably more ‘disengaged,’” Dunn observed. “I think young people today are a lot more willing to question, ‘Why is this assignment important?’ When I was a student, they told you to do it, and you did it.
“Now students ask, ‘Is this busy work? What’s the value? Why should I spend time on it? Is this really helping me know what I need to?’
“Yes, we want them to be disciplined, we want them to know homework has value. But it’s incumbent on us as educators to be sure that everything we assign has value,” he said.
Another factor Dunn has observed goes back to the unique nature of Seward County’s population. Because of the different cultures in Liberal, the school district addresses a dizzying spectrum of scenarios.
“We have a lot of parents who didn’t graduate high school, and they’re really proud of their children for doing so,” Dunn said.
Such parents may panic if it seems the system will not equip their children to go even further. On the other end of the spectrum, “We also have families who don’t do a lot of homework; when you come home, you do family things, homework, whatever. So if a student doesn’t do homework after school, where does it fit in?” he explained.
At SCCC, the student population is equally diverse, with more than 75 percent of the student body first-generation students. The majority — 80 percent — of SCCC students take at least one developmental class, designed to get shaky students up to college-level performance. Yet the community college boasts one of the highest graduation rates in the state and nation: SCCC sits in the 94th percentile for its graduation rate.
The bottom line? As many colleges and universities have begun to do, SCCC focuses on getting students from wherever they may start to a mastery level. The time frame and the individual pathway is not as important as making sure the final result is achieved.
“With our student body, they can easily give up, get discouraged, and their family may not know how to help them,” Dunn said, alluding to similar scenarios at LHS. “Our advisors do a great job of teaching them how to self-advocate. They say, ‘come on in, we’ll help you figure this out.’ They earn their degrees.”
In the next few years, Dunn expects to see more mastery- or competency-based systems take hold in secondary education. K-State has piloted a writing lab that aims to guide students from many levels to college-appropriate work. Other state schools have introduced math “emporiums,” where round-the-clock tutoring is available for students who haven’t quite mastered college algebra, and need to do so before moving ahead.
“You have to work at it continually until you really grasp it,” said Dunn. “That’s a quasi-mastery sort of concept. It’s research-based, it’s not tied to age or grade level. It’s the way students start out in kindergarten and preschool, where you keep at it until you know your colors and your numbers and the alphabet. Somewhere in there, we start to pigeonhole people and move them along without ensuring they know what’s being taught.”
For Liberal and Seward County, Dunn said, the goal is no different than those articulated by the people attending the Kansas Board of Regents meetings.
“It goes back to this curious thing about Kansas and our low college graduation rates,” he said. “We have tremendous opportunities for collaboration. Deep down, whatever the high schools and colleges are doing, that’s the concern across the state: Are we really doing a good job? What’s in the best interests of the state of Kansas and its students? That’s what we want to do at LHS and SCCC. I think we’ll get through this.”