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U-46 grading system draws further discussion

By Seth Hancock
  The Board of Education in School District U-46 was updated on the district’s plan to continue rolling out standards based grading (SBG) in the 2016-17 school year at its meeting on Monday, June 6.
  Suzanne Johnson, assistant superintendent, along with three others, gave a presentation on standards based learning and assessment and said next year SBG will be used in seventh and eighth grade math, algebra 1-2 and 3-4, geometry and pre-calculus/trigonometry classes. Outside of required classes, it is “voluntary” for teachers to use SBG according to Johnson.
  Among the district’s guiding principles are that letter grades should be given “equal incremental value,” homework must be accepted late and students are offered retakes on exams if they didn’t get the score they wanted. These three have been major points of controversy since U-46 changed the secondary grading scale in the 2013-14 school year.
  Holly Saxton, a math teacher at South Elgin High School, has done away with homework in the “traditional sense.” She said she used to give daily assignments but started asking herself “why do I give home work?”
  “This homework that I felt so good about giving wasn’t helping the students the way they wanted, or the way I intended it to help my students,” Saxton said.
  Saxton said that either students didn’t need the homework or it confused them.
  “I really had to question what homework is and what the point is for students,” Saxton said. “In doing so, I’ve stepped away from daily work, and homework isn’t the traditional homework sense.”
  Homework is viewed as practice for Saxton to prepare for exams and tests to see if that student met specific standards. Traditional homework was done at home with the support of parents, but Saxton said it should be done “with the support they need” in a classroom.
  On late homework and exam retakes, Saxton said she doesn’t care when a student learns the standards just that they learn the standards. She said “it’s not a free for all” for retakes, and there are procedures.
  “We do want our students to still have accountability for their learning, but we also want to be forgiving,” Saxton said.
  Jeanette Ward has opposed SBG from the start long before being elected and taking her seat on the board, and she asked why “equal incremental value” for letter grades is important. Johnson said that under the traditional 0-100 point scale the 0-60 for an E was a “huge range” and that under SBG teachers know better how to help failing students.
  Ward asked in the new scale changes what is considered passing or failing, but Johnson did not answer that question directly saying “we don’t see that we suddenly see a huge shift” in the number of students passing and failing. Although the traditional scale saw 10 points for each letter grade except the 60 for an E, but failing was 0-60 and passing 61-100 which is not a “huge range.”
  Noting that homework is expected, not required, Ward was concerned with the lesson that sends students as in the workplace employees are not able to get work in late and on their own time.
  “I’m afraid we’re teaching students that they can grow up and do that in the real world,” Ward said.
  “I think it would be hard for teachers,” Ward said. “If you are allowed to accept late work, if I were a student who wanted to get by with just doing enough I could wait until the night before the end of the semester and turn in all of my assignments when you’re trying to finish your grades on the last day. What prevents them from doing that?”
  “I think that becomes more of an issue for an [English language arts] classroom,” said Saxton who added there are cutoffs and if a student doesn’t hand in assignments the “skill’s assessed in another manner.”
  Ward asked: “Is there a limit on how many times tests can be retaken?”
  Johnson said “that’s up to each teacher or the departments at each site to identify” and that what she’s heard is one or two retakes at most. The idea that it’s up to each teacher or department would appear to contradict the claims of the presenters that they’re implementing this system consistently, and Saxton said there is a timeframe for retakes in her department and there are “at most three opportunities” per exam.
  Later, board member Traci Ellis argued against Ward’s view on SBG and the “real world.”
  “I wasn’t going to, but I think I will address this whole real world concept,” Ellis said. “I’ve been out in the real world a long time.”
  Ellis claimed that in college there is often little to no homework, and she said “quality organizations” don’t fire employees who do a poor job.
  “We don’t fire people, at least not companies who choose and decide they want to be companies of choice, we don’t fire people because they don’t get it right on the first or second or third try,” Ellis said.
  Ellis said she gave a presentation at work earlier in the day and her boss didn’t ask her to provide notes and information on it before the presentation which she said works “for employees who are not at my level” like a payroll employee she said who made a mistake.
  “She didn’t get fired, and that’s with peoples pay,” Ellis said.
  “We seem to be hyper-focused on punishing these kids,” said Ellis who added: “Well, we don’t do that in the real world. Most companies, most organizations take a progressive discipline approach.”
  Ward replied: “I’m not looking to punish the students. I’m looking to inspire good discipline.”
  “I’m not talking about punishing kids,” Ward added. “I’m talking about preparing them to be functioning members of society and to have good discipline in their lives.”
  What should be noted is Ward works in the productive work sector with a multi-national chemical company while Ellis is a lawyer who has recently been working in the public sector at Northern Illinois University.
  Ellis also did not refute Ward’s contention that work cannot be turned in late in the workplace.
  Board member Sue Kerr asked about SBG’s use in other subjects than math which Johnson said “math is our instructional focus” but the end goal is using it across all subjects. Johnson did not have a timeframe as the district continues to get feedback.
  “It’s a hard thing to measure since the state has taken away some of our standardized tests,” Kerr said. “How are we measuring its impact on student learning?”
  Johnson said U-46 is working with colleges, like Elgin Community College, for data sharing to track future outcomes, and Kerr asked “in other words, the students aren’t taking remedial courses when they get to college” which Johnson said was correct. In the most recent Illinois report card, it showed 60 percent of U-46 students needing remedial courses at ECC.
  Board member Cody Holt asked how the district is communicating the use of Tableau, software the district is using along with Infinite Campus to provide grades to parents. Johnson said the district is working with sites to create “hands-on, manageable directions” for parents.



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