Nine Normal Community High School students brought their concerns about Unit 5’s new grading system to school board members Wednesday night, asking for the district to change course.
The students said the new standards-based grading (SBG) model is being inconsistently implemented across classes, is difficult to understand, and puts too much emphasis on assessments and not enough on homework.
NCHS student Swetha Veluvolu said it was hindering her love for learning.
“SBG has been marketed as the next best thing in education. But some ideas are better left on paper,” she said. “While no system is perfect, it’s clear to students that we aren’t learning. We’re just suffering.”
SBG is just one part of standards-based learning—the heart of the Common Core state standards initiative that districts across the U.S. are implementing. SBG generally replaces the traditional letter grades (A, B, C, D, or F) with a score of 1 through 4, with 4 being the highest. A student is essentially scored against themselves and their own progress on a given skill or concept.
Standards-based learning is not new for Unit 5. It’s already rolled out in elementary and middle schools. But it’s only now being fully rolled out in the high schools. And high schools are tricky, in part because that’s when students and teachers dive deeper into specific disciplines. Another challenge is that not all colleges accept SBG during the admissions process, so teachers convert SBG scores into letter grades anyway.
Unit 5 high school teachers have raised their own concerns about SBG. Nearly 100 NCHS teachers recently signed a new petition asking for administration to give their departments the “autonomy to determine (their) own path forward.” They argue “departments that feel the concerns outweigh the benefits of implementation should be allowed to freeze or even roll back implementation of SBG,” according to a copy of the letter obtained by WGLT.
NCHS student Emily Dusin said she has testing anxiety. And her grades have suffered, she said, because of SBG’s heavy reliance on assessments—and its de-emphasis on graded homework.
Dusin also said making homework unimportant now will make it harder for students to adjust to college life, when self-motivated studying is essential for success.
“There’s more to learning than simply taking assessments,” Dusin said. “We were all smart enough to understand our grades under the (old) grading system because we knew it accounted for homework, our effort in our classes, and on our tests."
NCHS senior Lindsey Holtz said SBG is not a good fit for certain types of courses, such as orchestra. She said she’s always earned A’s in orchestra, but last semester that changed. Instead of spending class time playing their instruments and learning new techniques, Holtz said her orchestra teacher has “resorted to us having to waste time doing long concert reflections that take many class periods to complete, just so we can end up with higher grades and meet the required standards.”
“SBG is not the correct path to take,” Holtz said. “It punishes students for trying their best. It is not fit for music classes. And does not show the true effort that students put into their work.”
Unit 5 is far from the only school district implementing SBG. And Unit 5 leaders say they recognize the change is difficult but that it’s necessary. Under the old model, Superintendent Mark Daniel has said students who were behind were at risk of giving up or even acting out. Standards-based learning keeps them engaged, he said.
Last week, Unit 5 notified parents of a new Curriculum and Instruction website that’s filled with information related to SBG, including resources geared toward the high school level. Daniel said Wednesday the website was user-friendly and highly informative.
“Our goal is, how do we continue to improve our level of communication?” he said.
Deputy Superintendent Ray Epperson said Unit 5 district leaders were meeting with high school administrators, department chairs, and teachers about their concerns, including on an Institute Day right at the end of winter break. He stressed the distinction between standards-based grading and standards-based learning. The grading part, he said, is a “process that we’re continuing to work through.”
“At this point, any of the concerns that have been brought to our attention are things that we feel can work through,” Epperson said.
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