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Imagine Tomorrow

For much of the past few months, a big topic of conversation relating to the Chesterfield County School Board has been the Imagine Tomorrow policy recommendations that were discussed at the March 12th work session. As the only candidate for School Board that was at that working session, and the only candidate that has been to every working session and every business meeting since the beginning of 2019, I have some insight that I’d like to share with those of you that are concerned about the recommended policy changes. Then, I’d like to lay out my stance on each policy recommendation individually.

First, the current members of the School Board should be given credit in not taking action on these policy recommendations. The recommendations were given to the Board during a presentation called “Student Performance - Reporting and Recognition.” At the end of the presentation, it was made clear to the Board that these recommendations were not ready for a vote, and that it would require, at minimum, several months of discussions before any of them were ready for implementation. Chairman Thompson even stated at the end of that presentation that he wanted to see the research and the data behind the suggested policies before they would be able to entertain going any further with the recommendations. To reiterate, no vote was taken, and I believe that most, if not all of these policies, will fall to the next School Board to vote on.

I cannot say what these policies will look like if/when they are presented to the Board again, or what changes will be made if/when that happens. I can only tell you where I stand on each of the policy recommendations as they were presented during the March 12th work session.

Policy Recommendation 1 - Access for all to advanced coursework and highest levels of the curriculum, Schools will remove barriers for students to sign up for or select advanced coursework at all levels.

My Stance: As a school system, we should be removing barriers for students to sign up for advanced coursework. Currently, students are identified at an early age for a path through Chesterfield County Schools. Based on past performance, some are given advanced classes, and others are not. Once students are placed on a standard learning path, it is difficult for them to make the switch to advanced coursework. We should always encourage students to strive for their greatest potential and advance when possible. If the school system has placed artificial roadblocks in the way of students reaching that potential, we should do what we can to rectify those obstacles, and allow students that opportunity.

However, those decisions should be made with the support of parents and counselors. If a student wants to move to a class with advanced coursework, we need to make sure that parents agree with and support that decision, and that previous coursework shows that they are ready to take that next step.  We also need to make sure that class sizes are not negatively impacted. If there is a high demand for advanced coursework, we need to make sure that more teachers are being trained to teach those classes and make sure that students aren’t negatively impacted by higher student-to-teacher ratios. There may be some students who are not able to make that jump to advanced coursework, but that needs to be the result of parent and counselor input, not the result of a decision made about the child early in their elementary education.

Policy Recommendation 2 - Eliminate Current Final and Mid-Term Exam Structure. Teachers will be encouraged to assess students’ cumulative knowledge, understanding, and skills but without punitive, high stakes assessments worth 20% of a student’s final grade in a high school credit-bearing course.

First, I’d like to give a little background here. During the presentation given at the March 12th working session, it wasn’t suggested that the School Board get rid of all exams. The observation was made that when Chesterfield schools made the decision to forgo midterm exams during the year we experienced a lot of closing due to weather, that there was no noticeable loss in student performance. It was suggested that students might benefit more from an extra week of instruction, rather than dedicating a week to taking midterms. It is not my understanding, based on what I heard during the presentation, that it was suggested that exams were to be removed altogether.

My Stance: Our goal as parents, teachers, and administrators should be to equip students to take the next step after they finish their education in Chesterfield. Whether it be college, trade school, or entering the job market, we would be doing our children a disservice to remove any and all “high stakes” testing like this. In college, students will be given final exams. Most trades require some type of license and passing of an exam in order to be certified. Jobs regularly have big projects that employees are expected to finish in a timely manner. We would be doing them more harm than good if the first time they saw any type of “high stakes” test was post-high school.

That said, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a final exam at the end of the year that tests cumulative learning. We need to make sure that our teachers have the ability to teach in such a way that it benefits our children and best prepares them to take their next step after high school. If a final project is that best way to teach a particular subject, we need to give teachers the flexibility to make that decision. A final exam is more-than-likely the best way to test cumulative knowledge in math course, but it might not be the best way to test understanding and skills in a civics course. It is important that we have a way to test cumulative knowledge, understanding, and skills at the end of the year. Removing any assessment simply because it is considered “high stakes” isn’t preparing our children for life after high school.

Policy Recommendation 3 - Implement K-12 learning portfolio of evidence with exhibition of learning. Students will create learning portfolio demonstrating the 6Cs Infinite Learner Framework with a public demonstration of learning in their year of matriculation/graduation.

My Stance: With any policy recommendation, we need to make sure we are asking ourselves, “to what end.” Are there quantifiable benefits to creating this policy change? While there may be some benefits to having a portfolio, I’m not sure there are enough benefits to ask our teachers to take on this extra task. Most colleges are not going to be looking at a learning portfolio when making admission decisions.

It may be worth taking a look at creating a place where parents and students can create a learning portfolio on their own. I know some classrooms and teachers already do this through Google docs. But I believe that this is best left to students and parents to do on their own and not one more thing that we should impose on our teachers to keep up with. I’d rather them focus on teaching students than creating a portfolio that may not ever be used.

Policy Recommendation 4 - Rebalance weighted GPA value for all secondary courses. Schools will award additional GPA weight on a 5.0 scale for extension courses - AP/IB/DE and CTE Certifications in High School and HS level courses in Middle School. Comprehensive and Honors courses would have a standard weight on a 4.0 scale.

My Stance: Reducing Honors courses to a 4.0 scale from a 4.5 scale doesn’t make any sense. Why would a student willingly take an Honors course when there is no reward for doing the extra work? They could just take a C level course, do less work, and receive a better grade in turn giving them a higher GPA. We need to reward students for putting in more work, not take away incentives.

Policy Recommendation 5 - Switch to Latin Honors System, eliminating class rank. Schools will not report numerical class rank but rather the school division will establish bands for recognizing students based on weighted GPA - cum laude, magna cum laude, suma cum laude.

My Stance: I think this needs to be addressed in two separate parts.

Should we establish the Latin Honors System in Chesterfield? Yes. Anytime we can recognize students for the hard work they have put in, we should look for opportunities to do so. Establishing the Latin Honors System is a great way to call out students that have worked hard and achieved a GPA that falls into one of these categories of recognition. It also gives them something to add to applications post-high school
Should schools stop reporting class rank? No. While many college applications and scholarship applications don’t ask for class rank anymore, there are still many that do. Not providing a class rank could deprive them of an opportunity due to lack of required information on the various applications. We should at the very least be able to furnish it upon request.

Policy Recommendation 6 - Redesign current accelerated and double accelerated mathematics pathways 3-7. Current sorting of students in rigid, separated math paths in elementary and middle school will be replaced with unleveled math and differentiation through Canvas & small groups; removes barriers and builds stronger math foundations

My Stance: We need to allow teachers to teach to the students, and, as often as possible, stop teaching to standardized test. This is the policy recommendation that I struggle with the most. Taking a look at the supporting data would be paramount here. I understand the argument that when you have unleveled classes, it helps advance the kids that might not otherwise be pushed to succeed when their more advanced classmates are removed for the classroom. I also understand the argument that we need to let advanced kids advance. I think the important distinction here is that we are talking about elementary and middle school students. In high school, you can and should have leveled classes. In elementary and middle school, we need to take a look at what’s been done in other school districts and balance helping the students that might not be as far along in math with giving accelerated students the opportunity to stay challenged and engaged.

Policy Recommendation 7a - Establish a K-12 standards-based grading system. Expand standard-based grading approach and practices to grades K-12, focusing competencies learned versus a traditional letter grade/carnegie reporting system.

My Stance: This is another one of those policies where it needs to be looked at differently depending on the level of education being discussed. This policy is already being applied at the elementary school level, and could be worth doing more research to see how it might be applied at a middle school level, but it would certainly not work at the high school level.

This system was implemented in Maine, and many schools have since returned back to the traditional letter grade system after a disastrous rollout. Again, our goal should be to prepare our students for life after high school. For those students that wish to go to college afterward, not having a traditional letter grade or score would put them at a disadvantage compared to other areas when applying for college, especially since some classes in a proficiency based system only allow for a 3 at the most, which colleges might mistake for a “B”. I am opposed to this policy change on the high school level, and would need more information to convinced me that it should be applied at the middle school level.

Policy Recommendation 7b - Establish policy and guidelines to address zero grades. The school division will develop policy with guidelines to address zero grades, reframing them as “no evidence of mastery” aligned to standards-based grading.

My Stance: This policy is specifically referring to the previous policy 7a and a standards-based grading system (sometimes on a 0-4 scale). The policy was suggested so that “0”s would be defined every time a “0” was given so the parents would know the difference between their student not turning in an assignment and “0” that shows “no evidence” of ant level of mastery with a frequency of correctness of “never”.

Anytime we can give parents more information about how their student is doing in school, that is a good thing. I would be fine with adding a definition to any “0” given so that a parent could tell the difference between a “0” given because an assignment was not turned in, and a “0” that was given because there was “no evidence of mastery”. I feel it’s worth mentioning again that standards based grading should not be implemented at the high school level.

Policy Recommendation 7c - Adopt a One-Time Report Card with regular progress updates. Based on the standards-based grading methodology, the school division will establish a one-time comprehensive report to parents and students on student performance throughout the year. Regular performance updates will be shared with students and parents.

My Stance: The reasoning behind this policy recommendation was that is supposedly presented an “opportunity to better communicate with students and parents the level of student content mastery without  punitive quarter grades where the importance of learning in not weighed equally between four quarters.” This makes some sense only if schools are moved to an entirely standards based grading system. The goal would be to show mastery on the expected curriculum throughout the year, and not just during a single grading period.  I’m somewhat skeptical about this proposal as it stands and would need a lot more data to support this recommendation before I considered adopting it. But again, this only applies to standards based grading that will not work at the high school level.

Authorized and Paid for by Friends of Justin Smith.
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