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New U46 grading system slammed by parents, students

U46 Board member Amy Kerber. | Sun-Times Medifile

U46 Board member Amy Kerber. | Sun-Times Media file

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Updated: March 3, 2014 2:03PM

ELGIN — The new grading system that began being phased in this school year in School District U46 high schools and middle schools is still having teething pains and generating controversy.

In fact, school board member Amy Kerber admitted Monday that “we have students and parents who are in complete freak-out mode now” about it.

Even as a committee of teachers and administrators explained to the board Monday night how they are fine-tuning the new system and training teachers how to use it, five students and parents condemned it during the board’s public comment time.

But after two hours of discussion, the board’s members continued to endorse the new approach.

Called “standards-based grading,” the new system calls for teachers to arrive at a student’s grade for a class by rating on a 1 to 5 scale how well he or she has made progress on learning specific key concepts and skills that students in that class are expected to learn.

Proponents say the system makes grading less competitive and subjective — eliminating the chance, for example, of a student inflating his grade by bringing in canned goods for the needy or doing some extra-credit project even though he still hasn’t mastered the skills and knowledge the class requires.

But opponents say the new scale ends up making grades be based even more subjectively on a teacher’s opinion, that it leaves some hard work (turning in daily homework, for example) unrewarded, and that it’s making it harder for U46 graduates to show college admissions officers that they’re better than their classmates.

‘Committee 2.0’

Two committee members — Streamwood High School Principal Terri Lozier and secondary grading consultant Debbie Kling — said the original committee set up to oversee the new system was replaced in October by a “Secondary Grading Committee 2.0” with some of the same members plus any added U46 employees who wanted to join it.

They said the group had planned to speak to all secondary-level teachers during the “institute day” scheduled for Jan. 6, but schools were closed that day because of the weather. So since then, committee members have been speaking in each high school and middle school during faculty meetings, and then have been asking each teacher to fill out a “needs assessment” stating what they want to learn about. Students and parents have been invited to similar programs.

The group has been fine-tuning the process but, Lozier said, seven “basic guiding principles of grading” remain and “we are not debating those.” Those principles include that grades should be based on “demonstrated proficiency in well-defined skills” and that students should get multiple opportunities and methods to demonstrate that they have attained a given piece of knowledge or skill.

Elgin High Principal Jerry Cook said one employer told him that when he sees that a job applicant earned an A in math, the employer wants to know what that means the student knows. Standards-based grading should allow that, Cook said.

Assistant Superintendent Suzanne Colombe said she sees a three- to five-year process of training staff members and getting the system into full operation.

‘Tired of fads’

But five students and parents who spoke saw little value in the new approach.

“This entire system is confusing and in my opinion is a fad,” said South Elgin High parent Colleen Otters. “I’m very tired of fads being tried out on my son. Why is it so important to this school district to be seen as trendy in educational circles?”

“We give the kids who do no work the same credit as kids who did half their work correctly,” said Bartlett High parent Roger Wallace. “The real world doesn’t work that way. There’s less stress placed on homework and projects, and a lot more emphasis on tests.”

Larkin High student Allison Rychtanek agreed. “This system is not preparing students for the real world,” she told the board. “In the real world, if a person stops doing their job, they will not receive 50 percent of their paycheck. They will be fired.”

‘Past competition’

But board members stood behind the new system.

“We have to get past the idea that learning is a competition,” said board member Maria Bidelman. “We’re changing the idea that ‘somebody beat somebody else’ to ‘we’re all going to learn.’”

“I don’t think the answer is to go back to a system that was flawed,” said board member Kerber.

Kerber said many of the parents and students she has been seeing in “complete freak-out mode” about the system are worried that it will result in lower comparative grades for their student and affect ability get into a preferred college or to land a scholarship.

Colombe said she thinks college admissions officers increasingly judge applicants based not on high school grades anyway, but on whether the students took challenging classes and how well they do in essays and interviews.

“What college you go to really only matters for a minute” anyway, when one is seeking one’s first or second job, board member Traci O’Neal Ellis said. “Ten years into your career, no one will care what college you went to.”

“Every fundamental change at first looks like chaos,” said board member Jennifer Shroder.

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