This past week I had the privilege of attending an IEP meeting for Carter, a student that I have come to know quite well over the past three years. Carter has a learning disability and was diagnosed with ADHD back in fifth grade. School has always been a struggle for him, particularly the parts of school that require him to be focused and attentive in class and to meet assignment deadlines for his teachers in a timely manner. When he is focused, school comes relatively easy to him. With the help of his case manager and the support of his parents over the last two years, Carter has managed to earn all of his freshman credits and sophomore credits. The final course grades that appear on his transcript aren’t stellar, but regardless no one can argue with the fact that he reached proficiency for each of his course competencies and thus received credit for each of his courses.
Over the years Carter and I have had many encounters. Like so many other ADHD students who struggle to keep their attention-span during class, Carter has found himself referred by a teacher to my office on several occasions. I have always found there to be a positive correlation to his class disruptions and whether or not he takes his ADHD medication. In recent months he has struggled with whether or not to take his ADHD medication as he feels the negative side-effects far outweigh the benefits. His grades have dipped considerably this school year. The purpose of this most recent IEP meeting was to determine what else could be done to get Carter back on track.
IEP Meetings of the Past
I’m sure you all have students with similar stories to Carter in your school. In my seven years as a principal at Sanborn I have attended many IEP meetings for students with a story very similar to Carter’s story. Oftentimes the IEP meetings for these students would have a very familiar pattern. They would usually start with the parents asking the school why the student was not passing their classes. The case manager or the guidance counselor would then share a print-out of the student’s current grades and missing assignments from an online grade book portal. At some point in the discussion a teacher would note that the student is missing work, has late work, or is refusing to do some work. As the administrator, I would offer a suggestion of a “do this or else” type policy to motivate the student to get their work completed. Quickly, the conversation would shift to be about the “behaviors” associated with learning that are or are not taking place but not the actual learning itself.
Reflecting on these past meetings, I used to feel that they were productive and effective, as long as everyone involved could leave the meeting with a plan of how to help the student with their academic behaviors, because that, somehow, was going to help the student improve his or her grades. If I had a nickel for each time someone in an IEP meeting said something like, “He/she needs to do all of his/her homework,” or “He/she needs to participate more in class,” I would be a millionaire today. While these behavior plans and statements were true, at the time I never realized that they failed to address what it is we wanted students to know and be able to do, how we would determine when they knew it, what we would do when they had not learned it, and what we would do if they already knew it. Do these four concerns sound familiar? If your school uses a Professional Learning Community (PLC) model, they should.
The IEP Meeting of Today
At Carter’s most recent IEP meeting it occurred to me how much things have changed and how far my school has come even in a short period of time. Carter’s meeting focused on his learning: His ability to apply content knowledge and skills in and/or across the content areas. His meeting did not focus on his behaviors for learning (like whether or not he participates, does his homework, or submits assignments on-time). These behaviors certainly represent effective study skills, but they don’t tell us anything about Carter’s learning.
The focus of Carter’s meeting and many other students like him are a result of a fundamental redesign that the school underwent over these last three years when it adopted a competency-based grading and reporting system. With this adoption, the school’s entire philosophy for curriculum, instruction, and assessment changed. Today, each teacher assesses students on a set of course-based and school-wide competencies using a common set of grading guidelines that promote the use of formative and summative assessments, the use of reassessments, and the understanding that students cannot opt to “take a zero” for choosing not to complete an assignment. At Sanborn Regional High School, progress toward meeting these competencies and course grades are all reported on competency-based report cards and transcripts. All of these new philosophies have helped to change IEP meetings like the one I attended for Carter.
At this meeting, Carter was presented with a print-out of his grades from our online gradebook. His case manager walked all of us through the assignments that Carter was missing and why they were causing his final course grades to be reported with incompletes (teachers are required to give incompletes, not zeros, when students have missing assignments). He gave explanations for each of the missing assignments and the course competencies that each assignment was linked to. Carter and the team talked about which competencies he had already demonstrated proficiency in based on other assessment evidence and which ones he still had little or no evidence to show his teacher. Together as a team everyone in the room helped Carter develop a plan to get back on track that included supports along the way that would ensure that learning and the collection of evidence was his primary focus. At some point in our meeting the discussion about behavior came into play, and the team was able to develop some strategies to make improvements, but that was not the primary focus of the meeting. The meeting ended with a clear identification of what learning needs to take place in order for Carter to bring his grade up to proficient in each of his courses.
Today at my school there are many stories just like Carter’s and many teams of adults who meet regularly to ensure that students like Carter will be able to reach proficiency in all of their course and school competencies. Our grading philosophy stipulates a clear distinction between “academic grades” and “behavior grades.” In IEP meetings, this shift in philosophy has allowed our professionals to better address the most fundamental principles of school: Identifying what we want kids to learn, how we will assess them on this learning, and what we will do when they didn’t learn or already know it. Our change in assessment philosophy has led to many interesting discussions and decisions on differentiated instruction, competency modification, intervention, remediation, and enrichment. With all of this we are a better school today than we were five years ago, and I can’t wait to see where we will be in the next five years.
Brian M. Stack is the National Association of Secondary School Principals 2017 New Hampshire Secondary School Principal of the Year. He is Principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston, NH, an author for Solution Tree, and also serves as an expert for Understood.org, a division of the National Center for Learning Disabilities in Washington, DC. He lives with his wife Erica and his five children Brady, Cameron, Liam, Owen, and Zoey on the New Hampshire seacoast. You can follow Brian on Twitter @bstackbu or visit his blog.