Private schools try out new ways to teach, grade

Liz Linder
Samantha Shapiro and Julia Sneddon in a Conceptual Physics class at Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill.

Melissa Alkire had always devoted her 11th-grade history course to preparing students for their one-on-one debate finals. The Beaver Country Day School juniors would spend nearly every class period refining their public speaking skills.

But when the school year wound down last spring, Alkire’s students asked instead for the freedom to show other skills they had learned.

“I took a deep breath as a teacher,” she recalled, “and said, ‘ . . . I believe that my students can do even better than what my original expectation is.’”


They didn’t disappoint her.

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One student debated himself — by recording two sides of an argument.

Several students designed college courses, with homework assignments and lesson plans.

Another student printed 3-D maps to compare the Mongol Empire with the British Empire.

“They had some really crazy-cool ideas,” Alkire said. “I think they were the best finals that I had seen come out of the 11th grade.”


It’s the question every educator faces: How do you equip students with the creativity and flexibility — along with the knowledge and skills — they’ll need in an innovation economy?

And how, as they navigate the high-stress arms race of college admissions, do you encourage a healthy love of learning?

Private schools in Greater Boston are addressing those questions in myriad ways — from the “unlearning” philosophy at Beaver Country Day in Chestnut Hill to modular grading periods at the Cambridge School of Weston to a skills-based portfolio system of grading that some schools are examining as a potential alternative to the traditional GPA system.

Unlike Massachusetts public schools, which administer the state’s MCAS exams, private schools do not participate in the state testing program unless their tuitions are publicly funded. Nevertheless, independent schools are under the same pressure to keep their students academically competitive, even as they challenge old grading structures and academic methods.

The Cambridge School of Weston, Milton Academy, and Phillips Academy in Andover are participating in the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a group of independent high schools that hopes to develop a skills-based portfolio system of grading.


“We think that there’s a good conversation to be had about how we assess students,” said Rod Skinner, Milton’s director of college counseling. “All kinds of research showed the status quo is not really serving kids as well as it could. In fact, some research shows that it’s actually driving unhealthy behavior from some kids.”

Milton became a member school of the consortium to be part of the conversation, and Skinner said he looking forward to formally sitting down with college admissions officers and hearing their perspective.

“The world out there is asking that our graduates have certain competencies and mind-sets and nimbleness,” Skinner said, “and so we need to start coming up with assessments that encourage and cultivate that kind of thinking, that kind of brain development, that kind of habit of mind.”

Phillips Academy agreed to join the consortium as a member school for an initial two-year period starting in the 2016-17 academic year. This allows them to engage in conversations without committing to implement future practices.

The dean of studies, Clyfe Beckwith, said the Andover school has been struggling with grade inflation and more students becoming focused on their grades instead of the actual learning.

“There are more students on the honor roll now than ever before, so how do we focus the attention back on education, learning?” Beckwith said. “I welcome the discussion as to whether or not the transcript is going to be a part of the answer.”

Andover has already been making incremental changes to address the issue, such as switching some ninth-grade courses to pass/fail instead of giving students letter grades. The final exam schedule has also been changed to give teachers the flexibility to assess students in other ways.

The Cambridge School of Weston, known for its progressive curriculum, has participated in the consortium’s conferences to act as an example for other independent schools.

“A lot of cultural norms and structures that are in place in lots of schools make it problematic for them to even talk about mastery and grades and transcripts with their families,” said the Cambridge School’s academic dean, Chris Ellsasser. “The Cambridge School has been able to be a leading example.”

When it comes to education, the Cambridge School has thrown out the rule book. It doesn’t calculate grade-point averages. It doesn’t have honors or advanced placement courses. It doesn’t even administer final exams. Instead, students are instructed to focus on more project-based assignments over seven grading periods, which are called modules, or “mods.”

Each mod is five weeks long, and students take three classes each mod. By taking fewer courses at once, students are able to “go in deep and concentrate.”

Beaver Country Day School has chosen to stick with the traditional GPA system, but its education process is anything but. Beaver strives to challenge students while giving them autonomy in their own learning.

Like the Cambridge School, Beaver doesn’t have AP or honors classes. It uses a self-coined “unlearning” philosophy to teach students how to learn instead of memorize facts.

Beaver also makes sure to emphasize coding skills in all classes beyond sciences and math, including the humanities. Alkire gave her ninth-grade history class the option of coding one of the battles during the American Revolution.

“I think when people hear about the way that we do things at Beaver, sometimes it can sound less structured,” said Rob MacDonald, head of the math department. “But what I’ve seen in practice over those 19 years is that by giving our students more choices and more control over the learning process, they’re actually learning in more depth and doing more sophisticated work.”

Students at The Cambridge School of Weston have the chance to live and work on Hurricane Island off the coast of Maine as part of the school's Marine Biology course. A student measures local snail shells.

Sophia Eppolito can be reached at sophia.eppolito@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @SophiaEppolito.