Wednesday, April 15, 2020

4Q Grades Are Back, Last Day June 5

Last Day of School is Friday June 5

Tonight (agenda) the school board selected Friday June 5 as the last day of school.  Two weeks ago the superintendent had suggested Monday June 8 as the last day, which was about 10 school days earlier than the originally scheduled date.  A survey of nearby districts indicated a range of last days from May 15 to June 5.

This makes the fourth quarter even shorter than it usually is, and it's usually short.  This time there are seven weeks and three days in the fourth quarter.  No new material will be introduced on Fridays.  There are allegedly some three day weekends built in as well, but us folks watching didn't see those details.  The seven weeks includes that first week of June, where realistically very little learning gets done.  So this quarter will go by quickly.

Interestingly, there was a public comment and other suggestions that the public supported a longer school year.  Vice Chair Williams agreed and was the sole vote against the June 5 date.

The superintendent justified the shorter year by pointing at the increased work that teachers need to do to prepare online classes, and their increased hours of availability, extending to evenings and weekends.

The superintendent announced that work, including professional development, would be available to hourly workers who would otherwise not get paid, and possibly not qualify for their health benefits, if they did not work those additional weeks.  He mentioned a similar plan for paraprofessionals, and they also gave some varsity coaches and the musical producers 30% of their full stipend for work to date.  In general the goal seemed to be to try to pay everyone for as much of the full year as possible.

ORHS Fourth Quarter Grades are Back with Pass/Fail Option

Today, Wednesday April 15, was the first day of a pass/fail quarter at ORHS.  The goal of the pass/fail fourth quarter is to reduce stress on students and their families in this difficult time.  I personally was already enjoying the reduced stress of a pass/fail fourth quarter.

That lasted almost the entire day.  Stress returned tonight when the board voted for a "hybrid model" for fourth quarter grading.  While the procedure has not been worked out yet, and it's up to the principal to decide some things the board didn't totally clarify, judging from the discussion the plan will likely be something like this:

- Grades are back for the fourth quarter, with the usual number/letter grades to be recorded in Powerschool, just as they were in the third quarter and all the quarters before that.  This will be the case regardless of any decision a student may make to take the course pass/fail.  Powerschool will not reflect that decision until after the quarter is over.

- For each class a student takes, the student and their parents may declare in writing the student's intention to receive a grade for the fourth quarter (4Q), or to take the course pass/fail for 4Q.

- Once the decision is made in writing for a given course, it is irrevocable.

- If the student chooses to get a grade in a course, it's business as usual.  The four quarterly grades will be averaged for a full year grade, or for a semester long course, the final grade is the average of the 3Q and 4Q grades.

- For a full year course, if the student opts for 4Q pass/fail, they still have to pass the course to get credit for the full year.  They would then get a full year grade consisting of the average of their 1Q, 2Q and 3Q grades. I don't think they ever spelled out explicitly what happens if they don't pass, but 'have to pass' presumably means a final grade of F if you don't.  Maybe the F is averaged in with the rest of the grades; they didn't say. 

- For semester long classes, if the student opts for 4Q pass/fail, there's an additional choice. The student can choose between their 3Q grade for the final grade for the semester or pass/fail for the semester. This was a discussion point two weeks ago that wasn't mentioned tonight so who knows?

- The default is pass/fail.  If a student and family makes no decision in writing for a course, pass/fail is presumed.  The letter grades will revert to pass or fail, pass being a 65 (D-) or above.  (Nothing was said about a default for semester classes then getting a final grade of the 3Q grade or a final pass/fail.)

- The deadline for making the decision to accept grades will be likely be after 4Q grades are known.  To  be clear, there's a separate decision for each course, and that decision can be made after the 4Q grade is known.

- Pass/fail quarterly grades and pass/fail final grades do not enter into the student's GPA calculation.

This is a pretty complicated plan that the district was against two weeks ago.  Tonight the superintendent said it was more `equitable' to leave the decision up to students and their family.  Then he went on to give an example which undermined his case: a student chooses pass/fail because they had a job helping support their family.   How equitable is that compared to a student who lives in a home with plenty of computers and quiet and professor parents who could cover the curriculum, and who now has the luxury of choosing to get a grade, a decision they can strategically make after they see what the grade is?

It's no great bargain for those kids either. Nobody's getting out of this stress free. Even if someone decides for mental health reasons to actually opt for pass/fail in writing right away, they still have to see all their work get graded and posted to Powerschool.

It's more stress between the kids and parents.  I was looking forward to not bothering my kid about grades. The kid might be better off with pass/fail, but now there's at least pressure from the parent to make the decision after the information is all in, which is strategically the right move if your goal is to maximize your GPA, but not if your goal is to reduce stress in a difficult period.

The principal clarified that transcripts contain quarterly and full year grades for every course.

The decision was made on the result of the survey.  I'll show the survey pie charts to get some color in here.  I personally don't think you need a pie chart to communicate three numbers that add to 100%.

The aggregated survey (parents, students and teachers) split evenly on three choices: 4Q no change, 4Q pass/fail only, 4Q either.  (It wasn't really specified what 'either' meant.)  Teachers overwhelmingly shied away from 'no change', splitting about evenly between pass/fail only and either way.

This is an example where the board's instinct was as usual reflective of the students and parents desires, while the educators were (initially) more concerned with issues of equity and fairness as well as student and family stress.  This time public opinion overrode the judgement of the educators.  It doesn't always.

It occurs to me a better plan would have the default be that each teacher makes the pass/fail or letter grade decision automatically to maximize student GPA.  Students could still opt back into to the regular grading system on a course by course basis, but this policy would likely eliminate the need for decision letters and the associated stress for almost all students.

Tennis Out, Parking In

In other news, the board approved a bid for $285,000 to turn the ORHS tennis courts into a parking lot, I think they said for 83 cars. For 200 bucks I could get some orange cones, some white paint and an "overflow parking" sign and we'd all get to park on an actual tennis court.

New middle school construction is apparently proceeding as planned, with the architects having meetings, I guess online. I've been asking about the interest rate, which I thought would be fixed as soon as the voters said yes.  At the meeting I think someone said the rate wouldn't be determined until August.

There was lots of praise for Doris Demers, the food service folks and the transportation folks, delivering meals in these tough times.  One public comment suggest raises for these folks, "hazard pay."  I suggested expanding the program, currently 100% federally subsidized, beyond just children and school days.

Middle School Principal Richard announced a plan for fourth quarter grading at ORMS that sounded to me more or less business as usual, fitting within the current competency reporting.  He said classes that end in the third quarter  will get summative assessments based on the work in school; classes through 4Q won't get their summatives until the end of the quarter.  Details on page 17 here.

The board approved a finance committee tasked to start working on next year's budget.  It was already going to be a difficult year, requiring finding $1M to bridge the financing for the new middle school without breaking the taxpayers.  Now there's the serious possibility of the COVID-19 recession causing revenue shortfalls at all levels of government.  If people can't pay their taxes, the district doesn't actually raise the money appropriated by the voters. There likely won't be any state help either, and maybe even state cuts to schools.  So there's a real possibility of an abrupt budget cut, necessitating some painful decisions.  But it's OK because there's a committee on it.  I guess we'll know more after the mid-year property tax payment deadlines in July.

As a small step, the superintedent proposed to bring back retirement incentives.  The idea is a $20K bonus for a teacher choosing to retire; the hope is the $100K/year teachers retire and are replaced with younger $60K/year teachers, saving $20K a pop the next year and more in subsequent years.  The board rejected the idea by a vote of 4 to 3.

There was a bit of a fracas at the end of the meeting where the superintendent tried to give half of his 3% raise to Assistant Superintendent Todd Allen.  The stated reason was Assistant Superintendent Allen was paid materially less than assistant superintendents in Portsmouth and Exeter.  Member Klein thought he recalled Assistant Superintendent Allen's pay was the sixth highest in the state. Some members thought it looked bad for Todd to get a 4.5% raise going into the difficult budget year.  Some members thought it looked good for the superintendent to only take half his raise.  Some thought it didn't matter because the total budget would be unchanged. They ending up punting the issue to the next meeting.

Member Klein raised the possibility of remote learning extending into the fall.  I don't even want to think about that so let's end this here.

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