WILTON — The key word was “equity” as the Wilton High School administration heartily recommended implementation of a fourth-quarter grading system that allows for limited grade improvement but no backsliding.

The Board of Education on Thursday night, April 23, unanimously approved Superintendent of Schools Kevin Smith’s grading proposal for a grade-bracing approach at the high school based on standards rather than letter grades for the fourth quarter, and also the proposal for Miller-Driscoll and Cider Mill Schools, which will have sole narrative comments absent of progress marks of any kind.

The proposal for Middlebrook School, however, was tabled until April 30, as some board members were uncomfortable with a grade-bracing proposal that, unlike the high school, allowed no opportunities for letter-grade improvement.

“I feel like we’re just giving them the opportunity to do the bare minimum,” member Jennifer Lalor said of the Middlebrook plan.

“I don’t see our kids buying into that kind of a plan,” she said.

Principal Lauren Feltz explained that the staff, which, unlike the high school, was not unanimously behind the plan, hoped to balance assessment with a focus on the health and wellness of the students who may be experiencing undue pressure at this time.

“It is difficult to keep the emphasis on student wellness,” she said, while also using a “carrots and sticks” approach for this quarter’s marking period.

“There was a diversity of opinion around this,” she said, noting “robust conversations” among the staff.

Chair Deborah Low, who suggested tabling the item until next week, agreed with Lalor and said she didn’t see harm in the added incentive.

“This seems like it would be a positive consequence,” she said, noting the staff didn’t need to change its opinion but should come back with some more details.

“I think that there needs to be some sort of incentive or acknowledgement,” member Ruth DeLuca agreed.

Member Mandi Schmauch, meanwhile, said the written narrative was enough in her opinion.

“I have to trust the teachers and staff, that they’ve given this thought,” she said.

“For a middle school environment it seems to make sense to me,” she added.

Meanwhile, high school principal Robert O’Donnell shared details about the program his staff was united behind.

“We really felt strongly that traditional grading in this environment is really not appropriate,” he said, noting it could also be seen as “fundamentally unfair to a number of students.”

“This is the time to let the pressure of grading go and realize this is about learning, this is about growth, this is about feedback,” he said.

Students will be judged as either having met or not met standards, or an evaluation of “insufficient evidence/did not assess” will be put in place.

“There’s no one right answer, but we clearly need a system that incentivizes all of our students without penalizing any of our students,” O’Donnell said.

He said in-depth analysis of grade history at the high school showed that fourth-quarter improvements were historically very minimal and did not play a significant part in a student’s overall score for a year-long course.

This plan assumes each of the first three quarters to be 30 percent of the final, with the fourth equal to only 10 percent. Thus, a student can lift their existing grades only by “one notch,” so a C going into the fourth quarter can become at best a C+, or a B+ going into the fourth quarter can at best become an A-.

“Our analysis shows that under our traditional grading system,” he said, “an absolutely stellar fourth quarter does not necessarily move the yearly average significantly.”

Meanwhile, a poor fourth-quarter performance under this policy will not reduce the grade that was earned in the first three quarters.

“We have an opportunity here … to take the pressure off of our kids, to take the pressure off our teachers and off of our system,” O’Donnell said.

“The heart of the system is just the direct feedback to the students from teachers,” explained Donald Schels, associate principal.

He described the standard-based assessment approach as “actually a style of teaching, during which the teacher gives the student ample opportunity to practice” after modeling, then provides feedback and guidance to complete projects.

“It’s more about finding a student where he or she is and moving them forward … This allows us to take care of all our learners because it values the student where he or she is.”

DeLuca praised the plan as “a thoughtful and reasonable approach.”

“I do have some concerns about making sure that the standards are the same across the board and understood equally by faculty,” she said

Expectations should be made uniform and “overly communicated,” she noted, “… so there is no lack of parity across classes,” or even within a single classroom.

Vice Chair Glenn Hemmerle praised the plan, calling it “very simple and easy to understand.”

“We don’t know and have no idea what the learning environment is for so many of these students,” including parents with job loss and other stressors.

“I’m very pleased to see it’s a rational, reasonable grading approach … and it’s one that I think our parents can easily understand and agree with,” he said.

Smith said he and his team talked to other districts throughout the state to get feedback before deciding on the plan.

Lalor voiced the fear of some parents that the policy will remove a student’s motivation to push themselves.

“If we could just ask our staff to call our students out when they’re not reaching their full potential and to be on top of them … maybe that would help ease everyone’s concerns in terms of that a little bit,” she said.

“I can assure you that will happen,” O’Donnell said. “We will hold the expectations high.”

“My vision for this process is that next week … teachers have conversations with students about their standards and projects,” he said, with a lot of feedback from all parties maintained throughout the remaining seven weeks of school.