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Grades, Achievement Dominate Discussion at MCPS Town Hall in Germantown

Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr hosted a Town Hall at Seneca Valley High School Monday, capping his third community day of the school year.

When addressing a crowd of nearly 300 parents, the leader of Montgomery County’s public schools didn’t talk about bad grades.

He took it a bit further—he said he doesn’t believe in them.

“I've been joking about this, and, no, I’m not really going to do it [get rid of grades],” Starr said. “But I don't know why we have grades other than to compare kids to each other. I don't know why we have grades.”

Starr was speaking to a cafeteria full of parents, teachers and a few students at a town hall Monday at Seneca Valley High School, capping a string of Community Day events at Upcounty schools.

After a brief introduction by Starr, parents had the opportunity to ask questions.

Achievement gaps, construction funding and bullying were among the issues raised. But the majority of the questions came from moms and dads wanting to know what the school district was doing to make their kids more academically competitive.

Going for Straight ‘ESs’ Instead of  Straight ‘As’

At the crux of the discussion were concerns over a new evaluation system for elementary school students in which students in the first through third grades receive “ES” for exceptional, “P” for demonstrating proficiency, “I” for in progress, or an “N” for not making progress.

Parents complained that the new system was confusing and dampened their kids’ motivation to try hard in a district already regarded as high achieving.

“Really, what's the motivation to work harder than a child who aims for a 70 versus my child who aims for 100?” a Germantown mom asked Starr.

Another dad jokingly, asked Starr about his elementary school-age son.

"Will he ever know what an ‘A’ or ‘B’ is? What I really want to know is when can I punish him?" the man asked.

Starr said there was more to grading than just the letter or number.

“What I think it really needs to be about is giving feedback to kids on how well they've done and showing them how to do it better,” Starr said.

During the Town Hall, Starr espoused views from his latest book club pick,  “How Children Succeed” by Paul Tough—that there’s more to student success than testing—and tenets of Common Core standards, which focus on critical thinking and other such skills.

In Virginia, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties have implemented or are planning to implement versions of standards-based report cards, according to The Washington Post.

Parent: Are Down County Schools Better?

The mom of a kindergartner within the Seneca Valley cluster said she was concerned that her son was at a disadvantage because he didn’t go to what she referred to as one of the “‘W’ schools” — the nationally ranked schools within the Wooton and Walt Whitman clusters down county.

“What is happening to get this cluster more competitive with those?” she asked.

At first, Starr spoke generally, stating that across the board, MCPS schools were high performing and that there tends to be a correlation between demographics and student achievement, with schools in more affluent communities performing better.

Then he said too much attention was placed on competing with others schools.

“I get concerned with the constant comparisons that people are making,” Starr said. 

He said the focus should be on the needs of the child, and how the school and the parent can meet those needs.

What Does it Mean to Be a Gifted Student

This theme reverberated through the night, particularly when an attendee said she was concerned that students on waitlists for gifted and talented programs weren’t being challenged enough.

According to Starr, 39 percent of the MCPS student population has been deemed “gifted and talented.”

“It goes back to the labeling issue, the competition issue," Starr said. “There's enough in our current elementary curriculum to engage every child. Then there are opportunities for children who need to be separated because their gifts are such that they need to be in a separate environment.

“But don't mistake gifts and talents for just being really smart and working really hard and being able to learn at a high level.” 

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