Opinion

STUDENT VOICE: ‘This walkout is just the beginning’

Inside a student demonstration over proficiency education in Maine

On September 28, a group of students at Portland, Maine’s Deering High School staged a walkout to voice their concerns with proficiency-based education and standard-based grading. This is one student’s story.

PORTLAND, Maine — “A” stands for excellence, and that’s what I’ve always worked for as a student.

Then proficiency learning came to my high school, and with it came standard-based grading.

Instead of grades of 1 to 100, we were getting grades of 1 to 4. And a 3 (that’s 85 percent) was the highest grade a student could get, without going “above and beyond,” even when there was no way to go above and beyond on most of the work. Soon it became impossible to earn 4’s.

I didn’t want to apply to college with a “3” average.  One big reason I chose to transfer to Deering High School in the Portland area in my freshman year was the promise of never having to encounter standard based grading while I was a student.

The school gave me the impression that the classes after mine may experience the switch to standard-based grading, but not my year.

Related: COLUMN: Documenting Maine’s failure to implement proficiency-based education

But then, the summer before my junior year, the school switched to standard-based grading.

Not only was this change unexpected, but it was lacking student input.

Previously at Deering, we had been taught that the school’s job was to ensure that students felt heard.

That’s why I was flooded with pride when I walked out of school with my fellow students last year to protest gun violence.

We thought that opinion mattered when it comes to big changes.

But in this case, there was no input from students.

We students felt disappointed in a system that was supposed to give us a platform to voice our opinions was not giving us one when it came to the new grading system.

Fast forward to September 28 of this year:

“We are here today expressing how we feel. Together as a student body, I believe we can change the grading system and prove that we do have a voice and we know how to use it.”

These were the words I strained to project onto the rowdy crowd, with faces turned down to their phones and side conversations with their friends, few were listening.

But when I began to speak about our grades and the school board’s lack of attention, the heads turned up. The local news station stood nearby, filming my voice, which was dripping with anger and frustration.

The crowd made up of my fellow classmates cheered at the mention of standing up for the right to have a voice in our own educations. Their shouts drowned out the patting of the rain on our raincoats and the sound of cars too busy to notice our small movement.

Though my stage was just a stone bench, and my microphone was my voice, in that moment I felt as if I was making a change for my school. As if I had a voice.

This is how all students should feel. All students should feel that they have the power to change what they think is wrong.

Though there has been no action taken yet by the school board, this walkout is just the beginning.

This story about proficiency education in New England was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Ragan Toppan is a student at Deering High School in Maine.

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Ragan Toppan

Ragan Toppan is a student at Deering High School in Maine. See Archive

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