Unit 5 high schools aren’t the only ones rolling out a new grading system.
University High School in Normal is in Year 1 of a five-year rollout of standards-based grading, or SBG. SBG replaces the traditional letter grades (A, B, C, D, or F) with a score, such as 1 through 4, with 4 being the highest. And instead of receiving a grade based on the percentage of possible points accumulated—e.g., anything 90% and above is an A—a student is essentially scored against themselves and their own progress on a given skill or concept.
Unit 5 has faced strong, public pushback from its high school teachers and students over its rollout of SBG. U-High leaders say they’ve faced challenges too, but some of that has been lessened by giving departments more autonomy and putting teachers in the driver’s seat.
“This isn’t just a very stagnant approach to this. This is very fluid, and we’re trying to very mindful of what our teachers are telling us,” Christine Paxson, curriculum coordinator at U-High, said on WGLT’s Sound Ideas. “Everyone has a voice.”
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.
Rolling out SBG at the high school level is more challenges than in elementary or middle school in part because individual departments, like Social Studies or Foreign Languages, are empowered to operate as their own little islands. A similar dynamic exists once students reach college.
For now, U-High is allowing different grading scales to be used in different parts of the school. Eventually, they’d like to get down to just two—one for standards-based, and another traditional scale that can be used for Advanced Placement (AP) or Dual Credit classes, Paxson said.
But U-High will allow some flexibility from department to department—social sciences versus English, for example—on how they describe proficiency. U-High has also set aside a monthly professional development session (during a late start) to talk about SBG issues.
And there is a 13-member SBG task force, led by Paxson but filled with teachers. SBG has been rebranded as the U-High Framework.
Principal Andrea Markert said U-High operates under a shared governance model, like a university. U-High is a laboratory school of Illinois State University.
“(Teachers) are the ones doing all the footwork for it. They’re the ones that live with their grading systems day in and day out. We need to know what works for them, and they’re the best people to determine that,” Markert said.
Markert and Paxson say U-High has faced challenges too. It’s simply not easy to get people past the mindset of traditional grading practices, Paxton said. Constant communication helps, she said.
And more autonomy can breed more confusion among students who may see different scales or grading practices depending on their teacher. (One thing that’s helped is that students entering U-High have some exposure to SBG because it’s already been rolled out in many junior high schools.)
Another challenge is more practical: U-High has struggled to find grading software that accommodates its various needs, especially those multiple scales. Even if students are doing great work, a school needs to able to clearly convey that progress when it’s time to deliver a report card.
“We really didn’t have many options,” Markert said. “We have a gradebook we’ve been using for several years now because it best fits our needs. But it still does not fit all of our needs. But none of them do at this point.”
“We’re still looking. Actively looking,” Paxson said with a laugh.
The goal is for U-High to document what it’s learned over the next five years and share those findings with other high schools—part of its mission as a university lab school.
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