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Billerica parents plead for return to A-B-Cs

In response to criticism from parents upset about the elimination of a traditional letter-based grading system for Billerica’s sixth-grade students, district officials are exploring the possibility of modifying the format of their report cards once again.

After receiving a petition signed by more than 600 people demanding the return of letter grades, the district is considering a hybrid model for the school system’s youngest middle school students. It would incorporate both the familiar percentage-based letter grades and standards-based assessment numbers, said Superintendent Timothy Piwowar.

In what parents complain is a dizzying array, a sixth-grader can receive up to 37 assessments divided among six subjects in a quarter.


Prior to the Monday School Committee meeting attended by some 60 disgruntled parents, the district already was planning to issue a hybrid report card to its seventh- and eighth-graders beginning with the 2013-2014 school year, Piwowar said. This year, students in those grades are receiving letter grades.

Under the traditional letter-based grading system, a child who aces tests but fails to do homework might receive the same grade as a child who struggles on exams but diligently turns in homework assignments, Piwowar said. In contrast, the standards-based system grades students on numerous and specific content areas or skills.

“We’re separating the academics from the habits,” the superintendent said.

The new report card for sixth-grade students — which was based on those used for middle schoolers in Shrewsbury and Lincoln — includes separate assessments from 1 to 4 for 10 math skills, ranging from the ability to compute fluently with multi-digit whole numbers and decimals to the understanding of fractions, decimals, and percentages.

A 1 indicates the student is “not progressing adequately toward the standard,” a 2 means he or she is “progressing toward the standard,” a 3 means the child “meets the standard;” and a 4 indicates the student “exceeds the standard.”


“One of the things we are talking about is potentially looking at having a hybrid system across the board at the middle school level,” Piwowar said in an interview Tuesday. “As we develop this hybrid, we’re going to have to do that in a smart, meaningful way, in a way that makes sense and prepares kids for high school.”

The district’s high school students receive letter grades, a policy that will not change, Piwowar said, ensuring that students will be able to submit a traditional transcript with their applications for college admission. The practice is common in districts that have transitioned to standards-based report cards for the lower grades, he noted.

That has done little to assuage the concerns of parents who have been quietly calling for a return to the old-school grading method since the fall of 2008, when the standards-based model was first introduced in the district’s elementary schools. Their long simmering discontent boiled over this school year when the system was expanded to include sixth-graders.

“Younger kids are like little sponges; they will learn,” said Debbie Burke, a vocal critic of the standards-based system who started the online petition that by Wednesday had 620 signatures. “But older kids are different. They need to be motivated, to have that ‘A’ to strive for.”

Parents say the new system is too complex and confusing. Educators say it gives parents more information about their child’s performance in the classroom.

“The problem is that the grades are meaningless because there’s such a wide span of student achievement that is acceptable within each numeric grade,” said Burke. “A child can get one question wrong on an eight-question test and earn a 3, or he can get three questions wrong, and still get a 3.


“With this standards-based system, you don’t know if your child is really understanding the material. Is he getting a 76 or an 86? There’s a big difference, and it’s not reflected by this system.”

Critics of the new grading system note that it ended the honor roll for sixth-graders. In online comments and in their remarks to the School Committee on Monday, parents and students alike called for its return. The honor roll, they said, inspired students to rise above mediocrity and excel.

“The honor roll is an incentive for students to strive for not just the bare minimum, not just the standard, but their full potential,” Emma Tilley of Billerica, a high school student who is now enrolled in a private school, wrote in the comments section of the online petition.

“The criteria for making the honor roll was an A or a B; without letter grades, that criteria didn’t apply,” said Piwowar, who noted that the district is well aware that student achievement should be lauded. He is hoping to institute a system that recognizes “both academic achievement and work ethic.” The goal, he said, will be to honor students for giving their best effort.

Such a rewards system may not sit well with the students, who are among the district’s harshest critics. At Monday’s meeting, several youngsters addressed the School Committee to demand the return of the honor roll and criticize the complexity of their report cards. And long before Burke posted the online petition that has grabbed headlines, two middle school students — one of them her son, Jacob, 11 — had led petition drives, asking their peers to support going “back to percentages and letter grades.”


More than 300 children at the town’s two middle schools signed the petitions.

Going forward, as the district explores the possibility of adopting a hybrid report card for its sixth-graders, local educators “will be doing a better job of engaging parents in the community in the conversation about the learning that’s taking place in our classrooms,” said Piwowar.

In an e-mail, Daniel Cugno, chairman of the Billerica School Committee, said decisions on curriculum, including grades, should be left to the school administration.

“I am confident in the abilities of Superintendent Piwowar and his team to make decisions relating to education that are in the best interest of the children of Billerica, of which my children are included,” Cugno said.

Brenda J. Buote may be reached at brenda.buote@gmail.com.