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Pressure strong for grading system change

This much seems certain: Pasco County's controversial system of grading elementary pupils using the E-S-P-U method will be changed.

Exactly how or when changes will occur and how extensive they will be remains unknown, but all five Pasco School Board members, the superintendent and his assistant for instruction say the current E-S-P-U method needs alteration.

Their comments came Friday, the day after a preliminary report of an anonymous teacher survey was released. About 200 late-arriving surveys have to be tallied, but 58 percent of 1,140 elementary teachers have returned questionnaires and those results show deep dislike for E-S-P-U, mostly at the intermediate level, grades 3-5.

While 74 percent of teachers responding so far want E-S-P-U to continue at the primary level, kindergarten through second grade, the majority wants to see it modified. And 70 percent of the teachers say E-S-P-U should be junked for grades 3-5.

Board member Pam Coulter said that those percentages provide the most telling results of the survey: "That's an indication that we do need to look at making changes."

The consensus of board members and district officials interviewed Friday is for a continued move from the A-B-C-D-F approach to grades, abandoned at Pasco elementary schools two years ago. (The A-B-C system is still used in the middle and high schools.)

"I know a lot of the parents would like us to move back to A-B-C, but I personally would not like to see us do that," said board Chairwoman Kathleen Wolf, adding that she understands the need for change in grades 3-5 and the need to have a system that precisely explains to parents how their child is doing.

Wolf wants the board to stick with a grading method that works with the "continuous progress" curriculum. Under that program, children are taught in multiage groups with the understanding that youngsters progress at different paces. Continuous progress seeks to make every child feel valued and productive, so the E-S-P-U grading system focuses on individual assessment instead of comparison of pupils.

Concerns that the A-B-C system didn't mesh with that changed curriculum, expressed largely by reading specialists at the primary level, led the district to alter its grading method at least a year before originally intended.

Board member Marge Whaley thinks the district might have rushed into the changes. A pilot program perhaps should have been done first, said Whaley, who has a specific proposal in mind.

She advocates keeping E-S-P-U with modifications, including better written communication, for grades K-2, but returning for next school year to the A-B-C system for grades 3-5. The district then ought to spend next school year exploring alternative grading systems. She wants to learn about alternative methods that have worked in kindergarten through 12th grade in other school districts in the country.

At the end of the school year, if district officials haven't found a system they believe will work, they should keep looking and studying, she said.

"I think that's a message to the district," she said of the outcry against E-S-P-U. "We have been moving very quickly. Rome wasn't built in a day. Reform movements are difficult."

Discontent with E-S-P-U came to light after a parents group presented more than 3,000 signatures demanding a return to the A-B-C system. The group urged the board to order the anonymous teacher survey. The final results of the survey will be ready in July.

The group argues that E-S-P-U does not accurately convey a child's academic progress and does not motivate youngsters to do their best. Teachers tend to agree, based on preliminary survey results.

The parents' group drafted a written statement Thursday night calling for the E-S-P-U system to be discontinued for all elementary grades.

"We're going to be watching closely," said group member and co-founder Cindy Sarabia. "I would really have trouble seeing how they could justify its continuation. It's not just a group of parents, a small segment of the population, like (district officials) tried to make us out to be. It's massive dissatisfaction."

Board members and district officials say the key to any changes will be the written opinions that teachers were asked to give in the survey. Those responses have yet to be analyzed, but are expected to provide valuable insight.

At least one board member wants to see the changes made before the start of school at the end of August.

"I don't think we need to take a knee-jerk reaction (and return to A-B-C)," said Jean Larkin. "I think we need to consider the report and act on it as soon as possible. I'd like to see us do something by this fall."

Larkin made this comparison: "You know what it reminds me of? Ford was real happy with the Edsel until he found out it didn't work."

The problem, said Mary Giella, assistant superintendent for instruction, is figuring out why E-S-P-U hasn't worked in the minds of teachers.

"Right now, we know that the primary teachers would like to have this (E-S-P-U) report card with modifications, but what modifications?" she said. "And we know that the intermediate teachers feel it doesn't meet their needs, but we don't know what would."

The written opinions, due to be analyzed in the coming weeks, ought to help clear up those questions, she said.

"I think the report card needs to be changed," Giella said. "I think based on what the primary teachers are saying and the intermediate teachers are saying, it needs to be changed. What I can't say right now is how."

Superintendent Tom Weightman, though still a strong supporter of alternatives to A-B-C, agreed.

"I feel as superintendent we've got a lot of excellent people in curriculum and instruction and I feel responsibility because I think we are on the right track that we need to support them," he said.

"But if there are some things that parents don't understand, we need to explain it. There is room for adjustment there and obviously there are some things that are going to have to change when that number of teachers don't feel comfortable with it."

As board member Dorothy Mitchell pointed out, the E-S-P-U system never was meant to be the end-all of grading methods. In fact, district officials consider it to be a transitional step as they work on finding the best method for Pasco.

"You know the (district) report card committee was going to meet this summer and work on it anyway," Mitchell said. "I think we need to take this information and go with it."