Searsport stays ahead of the curve on standards

SEARSPORT – Representatives from more than 40 schools in Maine, Canada, Scotland and elsewhere have toured Searsport District High School over the past year.

Their mission?

Learn from a rural school of about 200 students – more than 60 percent of whom qualify for free- and reduced-priced lunches – that has executed a transformation by shifting entirely to a system of standards-based education.

Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen visited the Waldo County school on June 9 on the last stop of his statewide listening tour, which took him to schools in each of Maine’s nine superintendent regions.

“We’ve tried to go to schools and districts where they’re doing innovative things, where they’re thinking outside the box,” Bowen said. “This is one, from the data, that’s pulled off quite a turnaround.”

Teacher Jeff Schula works with student Dilan Moody during an intervention period at Searsport District High School.
Searsport District High School English teacher Jeff Schula, left, works with sophomore Dilan Moody during a lab intervention period focused on writing mechanics. All Searsport students have intervention periods during which they work on math, writing and reading skills.

Searsport District High School’s standards-based transformation began in 2003 when staff members used a grant from the Portland-based Great Schools Partnership to start developing a set of standards that outlined what they expected their students to know and be able to do upon graduation.

Example math standard: Students make measurements and collect, display, evaluate, analyze, and compute with data to describe or model phenomena and to make decisions based on data.

Example social studies standard: Students will have knowledge of current and relevant geography.

Teachers were to base their classes entirely on those standards, and focus on helping each student master them.

“You have to work really hard to fail in this school, because we just don’t let it happen,” said Dawn Staples-Knox, who teaches freshman-year science.

The standards-based transformation involved teachers developing class syllabi based explicitly on the school’s standards, lesson plans designed to address particular standards and rubrics for each assignment that outlined what standards students would be expected to master in order to earn credit. The rubrics also explain what students have to do to partially meet, meet, or exceed each standard. Students don’t progress to the next unit of study until they’ve mastered the previous one.

“In a standards-based system, we were much clearer, and so were students, on exactly what they could and couldn’t do,” said Gregg Palmer, the Searsport District High School principal from 2002 to 2010.

The system “really lets students, parents and teachers know where their mastery is, rather than having a lump sum grade they can hide behind,” said Kathleen Jenkins, a junior-year English teacher.

Searsport staff members based their standards on the Maine Learning Results and national standards for each subject area.

The high school began phasing in standards-based instruction and grading in 2006, beginning with that year’s freshmen class. Grades range from one to four, with a “three” indicating a student has met a standard and a “four” indicating a student has exceeded it.

In 2010, Searsport graduated its first class whose members had spent their entire high school career in a standards-based system. The class’ graduation rate was 92 percent, compared to an 83 percent graduation rate statewide. From 2000 to 2009, Searsport’s graduation rate had hovered between 65 and 81 percent.

By 2010, the percentage of students scoring “proficient” or better on the critical reading and writing portions of the Maine High School Assessment had also risen to match statewide percentages.

With the implementation of standards-based education, the percentage of freshmen repeating courses dropped to 2 percent, from 12 percent beforehand. The dropout rate has also decreased, to 2 percent in 2010, compared to 8 percent in 2007.

“The real key for this to work was the interventions,” said Leanne Groening, who teaches sophomore-year history.

Searsport District High School has worked “intervention” periods into the schedule of every freshman and sophomore. Using web- and computer-based programs that tailor their questions to individual skill levels, students spend regular lab periods working on writing mechanics, reading and math skills.

Additional intervention periods – both during the school day and after school – are available for students who need extra time to meet the standards.

The end result is a more rigorous school, students told Bowen during his visit.

“You have to get everything right,” said Anderson Denduang, a junior. “You can’t move on without possessing all the skills required.”

  • In transitioning to a standards-based system, Searsport staff members relied on the research of Robert Marzano and the insights shared in “From Standards to Success: A Guide for School Leaders,” a 2005 book by California State University education professor Mark O’Shea.
  • The professional development for staff members was done largely within the school. Staff members established professional learning communities, in which teams of teachers from multiple subjects would work together on writing standards, lesson plans and rubrics.
  • Searsport District High School held community forums each year during its transition to standards-based education to inform parents about the transformation. “We just kept putting out information,” Palmer said.
  • Searsport established a system to trend, rather than average, grades, in an effort to represent a student’s level of mastery at a particular time, rather than also taking into account students’ previous mastery levels.
  • Student transcripts include a ledger of all standards, and indicate which standards each class addressed.
  • A revised graduation policy required each student to apply to a college, training program or other postsecondary experience that would provide “an opportunity for continued growth.” Palmer said that change was all part of an effort to create a culture of high aspirations.
  • Many Searsport students enter college with credits already under their belt. They can earn math credits through partnerships with the University of Southern Maine and Husson College, and staff members are working on partnerships that would allow students to earn credit from Maine Maritime Academy and the University of Maine’s Hutchinson Center in Belfast.

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