Board invites public to talk on leveling

NASHUA – Administrators from each of the city’s three middle schools have said they are in favor of abandoning leveling, at least at the sixth-grade level, if not all together.

Paul Asbell, principal at Pennichuck Middle School, told school board members in September that being placed in a low level while in middle school often leads to a pattern of performing to low expectations that continues into high school.

“What we do now in our school district is that we, as important adults in their lives, tell 11-year-old kids that this is the level that you will achieve in,” Asbell said.

At the Sept. 30 meeting of the school board’s curriculum committee, administrators from Elm Street Middle School and Fairgrounds Middle School echoed Asbell’s comments.

When the idea was floated of abandoning leveling at the sixth grade, Asbell said he “would support that wholeheartedly.”

This week, proponents of the system, which groups students into different classes based on ability, will have an opportunity to present arguments for keeping it in place.

The next meeting is scheduled for Monday night at Nashua High School North at 6:30 p.m. There will be a period for public comment.

School board member Robert Hallowell, chairman of the curriculum committee, urged those with thoughts on the issue to attend Monday night’s meeting and share them with the board.

“There are many competing views,” said Hallowell, and any decisions that are considered should be made with as much input as possible.

The debate over whether to group students by their perceived ability (homogeneous) or to have students mixed together (heterogeneous) is one of the most contentious issues in education.

Both sides claim there is research to support their positions.

Supporters of leveling argue it provides students with a more focused, personalized instruction and that teachers would otherwise have to teach more to the middle.

Opponents say the practice lowers expectations on students and amounts to modern day segregation in the schools, dividing students by races and classes.

Colette Valade, principal of Elm Street, said the district missed an opportunity to abandon middle school leveling in 2004 when the district transitioned form junior high schools to middle schools.

“Research continues to show that the heterogeneous grouping is more successful in middle school than leveling,” she said.

When to level

In Nashua, the discussion so far has focused not on whether to level students, but when.

At the school board’s curriculum committee in September, the first time the committee re-examined the policy requiring middle school students to be grouped by ability, administrators, principals and teachers talked about how leveling works at their schools, and the issues they face as they attempt to make sure students are properly placed.

Starting in sixth grade, students are grouped into three different levels – foundation, extension and honors – in the core subjects of math, reading, science and social studies.

Leveling continues at the high schools, where advanced placement courses are also offered.

School district enrollment data shows that Hispanic students and poor students – two populations that often overlap – are over-represented in the lowest-level foundation courses.

Special education students and English Language Learner students are also significantly over-represented in the foundation courses, according to the school district data.

Lyonel Tracy, the state’s commissioner of education, has said that he doesn’t agree with leveling students in middle school, arguing that it is best to mix students by ability, at least until high school.

There was a slew of middle school enrollment statistics presented to the board at the September meeting, based on data from the 2007-08 school year.

The data included grade distribution among the levels for the past year, which revealed a stark contrast in achievement among students at opposite ends of the spectrum.

In foundation level classes, nearly 40 percent of all grades handed out last year were Fs; at the honors level, half of all grades were either As or Bs.

Brian Cochrane, director of assessment and accountability, said the grade distribution is revealing. The reality, he said, is that there are students the district isn’t serving well.

“Considering that the position we’re putting foundation students in is to help them be successful, the issue becomes why is the most commonly occurring grade an F? Then D. And the least commonly occurring grade is an A,” Cochrane said.

“We have a significant percentage of students who fare less and less well as they progress through the system,” Cochrane added.

‘Focusing on the kids’

More so than in high school, teacher recommendations play a significant role in determining what level students are placed in.

Chuck Gray, a teacher at Fairgrounds Middle School, said teachers meet often in their teams, sometimes three or four times a week, and constantly review whether students need to be moved up or down a level.

“We’re always focusing on the kids, and we try to reach out to the parents when good and not-so-good things are happening,” he said. “It’s always on our minds to look at the student and how they’re doing.”

Sharon Coffey, assistant principal at Fairgrounds, said that middle schools and elementary schools work together to try and place students in the right level in sixth grade.

Elementary school teachers develop a profile sheet, which includes test scores and the student’s ability level code, she said.

“That’s a process that’s been going on since we’ve been middle schools,” she said.

But that process doesn’t end there, she said. When parents call and say their child isn’t being challenged enough or is overwhelmed, a meeting is set up to consider a change, she said.

Asbell said his staff starts the year by trying to “blur the level lines” and make decisions about where students should be about a month into the school year.

“That’s where I think a lot of the changes are made,” he said.

The data showed there are some students who are in multiple levels and change level mid-year. At Elm Street Middle School, there were 351 incidents of students changing levels last year.

Valade, principal of Elm Street, worked on scheduling students at Nashua High School North before moving to Elm Street this year.

Valade said she often received phone calls from parents about scheduling, but most calls only came from parents who were comfortable advocating for their children.

“The students that don’t have families advocating for them unfortunately often end up in the foundation level or whatever level the middle school recommended,” she said.

Valade said students who spent middle school in foundation classes come to the high school conditioned to believe that not much is expected of them.

“I think if we abandon leveling as we see it now at the middle level, it would prevent students from arriving at the high school with those thoughts in mind,” she said.

The debate over whether to level students in middle school is an issue other communities are talking about, as well.

Keith Bowen, assistant principal of academics at Hudson Memorial Middle School, said that over the course of the past year, there has been debate within the school about whether to level students.

The end result was a decision to level students in math and language arts, but to mix students in science and social studies, he said.

“It’s the great debate of education,” said Bowen.