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posted: 7/8/2013 5:30 AM

Controversy rolls on over new U-46 grading scale

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School is out for the summer in Elgin Area School District U-46, but a controversy over a new grading policy continues to rage.

A petition is circulating to get school board members to hold a vote on a change requiring all middle and high school teachers to grade student work on a scale of zero to 5 instead of zero to 100.

The new scale, set for implementation this coming school year, was recommended by a secondary grading committee made up of teachers and administrators from all the district's middle and high schools. They began their work in January 2011, but years of research and the resulting recommendation have been met with shock and outrage.

But the new grading system itself is not revolutionary. Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 already uses it, and districts across the country are considering it.

Originally the U-46 group recommended letting individual schools decide by majority vote whether to implement a zero to 5 or 50 to 100 scale in their buildings, but Superintendent José Torres announced June 21 that all schools would adopt the first scale.

"After all, we're a 'school system' and not a 'system of schools,'" Torres said in a written statement. "Therefore, we should have a consistent grading practice across all of our schools."

A majority of board members agreed at their June 17 meeting they should vote on changes to existing board policies only. The grading change does not fit the bill, as board policy simply states students should be assigned letter grades, which they will.

But Cody Holt, a 2010 Larkin High School graduate and Elgin resident, is collecting signatures to sway the board's opinion. Between online and paper petitions, Holt has more than 300 people urging the board to bring the matter to a vote. He hopes to collect 1,000 signatures before bringing them to the board of education in mid-August.

Like many in the community, Holt was not comforted by Torres' shift to the zero to 5 scale. It got less attention during public comment at board meetings and in spirited discussions on the district's Facebook page, but the zero to 5 scale is mathematically equivalent to the 50 to 100 scale. Both equalize the value of each letter grade, whether it is by making all letters worth 10 points or one.

The 50 to 100 scale drew outrage from parents and teachers accusing the district of giving students credit for half of the work when they didn't do any of it. Perhaps the most frustrating example for some is the potential for giving students who tried but answered only half of the questions correctly the same grade as someone who didn't try and answered none of the questions correctly.

Tracy Ricci, an English as a Second Language teacher at Streamwood High School, is one of the most vocal opponents of the change. She argues the new scales amount to grade inflation and will allow students to skate through their courses.

Grading committee members presented scenarios where students' grades did not change dramatically. Those who would have gotten B's under the traditional scale still got B's with the zero to 5 scale and same for those who would have gotten C's or failing grades.

But Ricci pointed out the other end of the spectrum. She showed school board members how a student could get no credit for 11 out of 12 assignments, but score an A on a heavily weighted test and pass the course with a D-minus. She acknowledges this is an extreme example but said it is a fair one because of the way exams are weighted more heavily than homework and quizzes.

"It is in fact possible for a student's grade to go from 20 percent to 60 percent on either of the two new scales," Ricci said. "It's a 40 percent inflation."

District 211 heard the same concerns when its own grading committee suggested a similar change, according to Theresa Busch, assistant superintendent for instruction. District 211's goal, too, was finding a grading scale that offered equal incremental value from one letter grade to the next -- the same change being considered by school districts across the country.

The District 211 committee formed in 2010 and its schools got rid of the traditional zero to 100 scale during the 2012-13 academic year. Teachers have the choice between three different scales that all accomplish the goal of equal incremental value per grade -- including the 50- to 100-point scale -- and they have the option of creating their own alternative that meets the same standard.

Busch said there were concerns that the new scales would lower standards, but the grading committee disagreed.

"It's the teacher who is in charge of assigning grades," Busch said. "That hasn't changed. Those scales simply calculate grades, they don't assign the grades."

U-46 teachers will have a chance to experiment with Infinite Campus, their online gradebook, during summer break. Kathy Castle, Elgin Teachers Association president and member of the secondary grading committee, expects some will have to change the way they weight certain grades to ensure students don't slip through with passing grades they don't deserve. But she said some teachers already were using a zero to 5 scale and won't have to change a thing. Others will just have to get used to new calculations.

And they won't be alone.

"This is a nationwide movement," Busch said. "This is not just Elgin and our schools in the Northwest suburbs. This is a nationwide debate going on right now."

Zero grades, the research says, have an overly punitive effect on student averages and reduce the likelihood that students who do poorly early in the semester stay engaged. What's more, advocates for new grading scales say zeros for late work or missed assignments don't reflect a students' true learning.

Officials in the Elgin and Palatine areas both cite academics who say there is no reason to have an A, B, C and D worth 10 points but an F worth 59.

"We've struggled to find the research that shows failing a student motivates them to do better," Castle said.

Castle argues the new scales should result in higher standards because of more accurate grades. Current practices result in artificial statements about students' work, whether that is because the grade is lower than they deserve due to behavior issues or higher than they deserve because of extra credit assignments boosting their average, she said.

The grading scale change in U-46 also will come with a new late work policy for the 2013-14 school year. Students no longer will be allowed to accept a zero and forgo the assignment. They will have to finish the work late and teachers will have to accept it and give at least some credit.

Ultimately both District 211 and U-46 are working toward standards-based grading, where the report cards show grades tied only to academic mastery of specific course concepts. Behavior notes that come from in-class participation, attendance or a tendency to skip homework assignments will be reported separately.

In the meantime, parents are concerned their children will be hurt by the upheaval when it comes to college admissions. While districts across the country are discussing grading scale changes, those that have implemented them are still in the minority.

But two college admissions officers said the change wouldn't affect students applying to their schools. U-46 students will still see letter grades on their report cards and receive grade-point averages calculated on a 4.0 scale for their college transcripts, just like they always have.

Nathan McNeely, associate director of admissions at Judson University in Elgin, and Kimberley Buster-Williams, director of admissions at Northern Illinois University, said neither of their departments look at the underlying math behind the letter grades. They both cited varying grading scales used by their applicants' respective high schools and said the rigor of individual courses students choose is considered more highly than the grades themselves.

Regardless of their high school GPAs, students must still prove themselves on the ACT, Buster-Williams added. Overall, she said she has researched U-46's proposed changes and doesn't think parents or students should be worried about their chances at college.

"For us, students will not be at any disadvantage at all," Buster-Williams said.

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