© 2023 WGLT
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

New Grading Model Met With Confusion, Pushback In Unit 5 High Schools

Exterior of NCHS
Teachers from at least three departments at Normal Community have penned letters to administration, raising concerns about standards-based grading.

Unit 5 is facing pushback from its high school teachers over the rollout of a new grading system that educators say is confusing parents and students and not delivering on its promise to individualize learning.

Teachers from at least four departments at Normal Community and Normal West have penned letters to administration, raising concerns about standards-based grading (SBG), WGLT has learned. They say SBG is drowning parents and students with assessment data they don’t understand, and that departments at NCHS and Normal West don’t have enough flexibility to adjust SBG to fit the unique needs of their disciplines.

“My hope would be that we could get some real dialogue around whether this is improving student learning, and whether this is something we need to continue doing,” said Karl Goeke, who teaches Spanish at Normal West.

"It's unnecessarily complicating things without producing any substantive change."

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 replaces the traditional letter grades (A, B, C, D, or F) with a score of 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.

And there are a lot of skills and concepts. That’s where it gets complicated.

Before now, when Goeke would give a Spanish assessment to his 80 students, he’d enter 80 grades. Under SBG, Goeke is now scoring his 80 students across 18 different “strands” of performance, like how well they comprehend the content or the vocabulary. That means 1,440 individual scores.

“I spent a lot of time typing in 4s, 3s, 2s, and 1s, and it doesn’t adequately communicate to a child or their parents what that means,” Goeke said.

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.

One reason is that high school is when students and teachers dive deeper into specific disciplines. A scoring rubric for a Spanish class is going to look very different from one in a math class. And teachers say Unit 5’s one-size-fits-all method of averaging scores—rather than putting more weight on recent scores, or the most frequently occurring scores—doesn’t account for how different it is to learn in the humanities versus hard science.

Another challenge is that not all colleges accept SBG during the admissions process, so teachers are being asked to convert SBG scores into letter grades at the end of the class. 3s and 4s became As. In their letter to NCHS administration, English teachers called this conversion an “impractical last step that sounds great in theory but in practice has led to many unintended consequences.”

“For a student, ‘I have a 2.5 in my English class for this assessment. When this gets factored in with all of the other standards at the end of the semester, does this translate into a C? Or a B?’” said Stefen Robinson, who teaches sociology and U.S. history at NCHS. “It defeats the whole purpose of the whole thing because we have to translate it into a letter grade anyway.”

Ashley Nord, a junior at NCHS, said it’s been a difficult adjustment in part because SBG is only being used in some of her classes.

“They’re calling our grades the guinea pig classes,” said Nord, who along with her sister Grace (a senior at NCHS) started a student group called “Stop SBG” in May. Using Google Forms, the group surveyed hundreds of NCHS students in April. Most said SBG was not an improvement over the traditional system, that it was not being consistently used throughout classes, and that it was negatively impacting their work ethic, according to survey results shared with WGLT.

In her SGB math class last year, Ashley said her teacher kept changing what 2s and 3s would count for when converted into the traditional percentage-based grade.

“That just left a lot of students confused. And not only that, but between teachers in different departments, their 2s and 3s have different meanings,” Nord said.

Grace Nord said 4s—the highest score in SBG—are “far and few between.” And if a student earns 3s all semester long, one 2 can take your 90% to a B, she said.

“Which is very disheartening,” Grace said. “I got my first B ever in my whole academic career last year in a standards-based class. I’m not gonna say it’s based just on that—I need to take some accountability for that. But it was very hard to adjust to that new grading scale.”

The Social Studies Department at NCHS, including Robinson, sent a letter to Unit 5 administration on Dec. 4, saying “there has been no proof that SBG improves student learning” and that the district’s expectations about its rollout are “unclear and continue to change.”

Robinson said Unit 5 has just replaced one quantitative assessment model for another.

“It’s unnecessarily complicating things without producing any substantive change,” he said.

Upsides and Downsides

Some teachers are quick to point out this standards-based approach is not all bad.

Goeke, the Spanish teacher, said he agrees with a lot of the philosophy behind standards-based learning. Allowing students to re-take assessments if they need to is a good thing, Goeke said.

But Goeke said he’s concerned about SBG’s “devaluation” of homework. Goeke said students can be assigned homework and receive a “formative” score on it, but it doesn’t affect their final grade.

“You can imagine what students are saying about doing their homework. They don’t,” he said.

NCHS English teacher Lauren Chessare said she understands the argument against graded homework, which could be seen as punishing students for what’s essentially practice. The incentive to do the homework is being ready for the next test or big paper, but that doesn’t always click, she said.

“A lot of students just don’t have the maturity level or self-discipline to really fully understand that and act on that. So we’re seeing a lot of issues with students no longer being motivated to complete assignments,” Chessare said. “That unfortunately is creating issues with students’ work ethics.”

Chessare’s English Department also sent a letter to NCHS administration on Dec. 5 raising concerns about SBG. In it they asked for more professional development and planning time to ensure standards-based learning is in place in all courses. But they also asked for departments to be able opt out of reporting out individual standards, as SBG calls for, if they so choose.

“If we cannot make this distinction and shift in the SBG initiative and must proceed on the path we are on, the rationale and support surrounding the standards-based reporting aspect of standards-based grading is going to require a significant amount of clarification and support that we may not have the resources to address at the scale necessary to be effective and positively impactful for students,” the teachers wrote.

The NCHS Science Department released its own letter on Thursday, saying that "the only solution is to make SBG optional for individual teachers at the high school level."

"In Science, we are resisting this move toward mandated, across-the-board SBG not because of laziness or from a fear of trying something new, but because each and every one of the NCHS Science faculty believes that this movement is detrimental to students, both now and for their futures. It is our firm belief that the use of SBG should be solely at the discretion of each individual teacher," they wrote.

Unit 5 is far from the only school district implementing SBG. It tends to be rocky, said Jay Percell, an assistant professor in Illinois State University’s College of Education who has studied grading practices.

“This is a total shift in paradigm,” he said.

Change is hard, especially something with as much cultural cachet as grades.

Mark Daniel
Credit Carleigh Gray / WGLT
Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel.

“Grading is so personal to all of us,” Percell said. “There’s a lot of ourselves that are our wrapped up in our grades and who we are.”

Reaction From Unit 5 Administration

Unit 5 Superintendent Mark Daniel said he understands some of the concerns he’s heard about SBG. He said he recognizes the scope of change involved.

“It’s very powerful,” Daniel said. “It has also required intensive work by our teachers and our administrators in charge of curriculum and instruction.”

He said it’s a necessary change. Under the old model, Daniel said students who were behind were at risk of giving up or even acting out. Standards-based learning keeps them engaged, he said.

But Goeke, the Spanish teacher, suggested SBG may be having the opposite effect, at least initially. SBG does not provide the deep level of feedback students need to re-learn material, Goeke said.

“They were more curious about how they scored previously when they were given scores that they understood,” Goeke said.

Daniel acknowledged changes may need to be made. He said the district is looking for a better reporting system, so that it’s easier to input and view grades. Unit 5 launched its new Infinite Campus student and parent information system for the 2019-20 school year.

Daniel said other large districts have also struggled to right the system.

“We will continue to work on that. For some of our teachers, it creates a roadblock for some of them. For others, it’s like, ‘Well, OK, I can work through this,’” Daniel said.

Daniel said Unit 5 administration will be meeting with department task forces to learn more.

“We’ll have to go through the processes and see where the kinks are. Let’s work out the kinks. And I think we will. We’ll figure out some solutions,” he said. “And if not, sometimes … I hate to use the old pencil and paper, but I really don’t want to go back to that level. But we do have to make some adjustments.”

SBG is not the first major adjustment teachers have faced, and it won’t be the last, said Barbara Meyer, associate dean in ISU’s College of Education, who has studied standards-based grading. Society’s expectations for K-12 education has evolved dramatically, she said, and teachers are now being asked to help students build transferrable skills for careers that may not have been invented yet.

“This is not a one-and-done. You learn what you can, you implement, you find out what’s working and what’s not in a particular classroom. And then you have to go back and figure it out again,” she said.

WGLT's full report on SBG.

People like you value experienced, knowledgeable and award-winning journalism that covers meaningful stories in Bloomington-Normal. To support more stories and interviews like this one, please consider making a contribution.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.