Members of the St. Croix Central administration team did their best to answer questions from concerned community members during the district's community discussion Monday, Nov. 13, regarding the change to a new grading system throughout the district.
"There are places out there that have been doing (Standards Based Grading) and have been doing it for a long time and we can provide you that information and show you what they are doing. But in Wisconsin, there aren't many, and we will be honest about that," said director of teaching and learning Glenn Webb. "I don't ever want to, and will never, intentionally do anything that will harm kids. I only want to support things that will help them. This will help the kids at St. Croix Central do better in their future."
Webb started the meeting — which was attended by 68 parents and community members and lasted over two and half hours — by outlining the advantages of the system and what makes Standards Based Grading a better system for the district. According to Webb, the new system will reward academic proficiency, encourage personal responsibility from students, provide timely and detailed feedback that leads to better student performance, provide teachers insight into causes of students' success and struggles, and accurately and effectively inform students, parents and teachers of student progress.
The four key changes the district will see include: getting rid averaging grades throughout a grading period, getting rid of the 100 point scale, creating clear communication about what students know and still need to learn, and building resilience and learning from mistakes.
"If you don't get something right the first time, then we need to refocus, relook at what you are doing and move ahead. Because at the end of the day, we have said that these are the things our students need to learn, so we should not just be moving on if they don't," Webb said. "And we are going to still have grades, but we are not sure yet how that will be done. That is why we gave ourselves a one-year timeline for the middle school and a two year timeline for the high school because these are all things we have to figure out and agree on."
According to Webb, there will still be GPAs, an honor system, transcripts to send to colleges and Individual Education Plans for students.
"These are the things that we wanted to make sure that you knew up front that we are not going to be changing or taking away. They might look a little different, but they will not be gone," Webb said. "We are also looking at grade inflation versus achievement inflation. People across the country have the feeling that Standards Based Grading dumbs down curriculum and that kids don't have to work very hard, which would then inflate grades.
"Research ... says that it is not grade inflation, it is actually achievement inflation. When you start using Standards Based Grading, grades do improve and you will have a lot more kids doing better, but that is because you will have a lot more kids learning a lot more. In turn, you will have many more kids achieving higher levels that they weren't achieving before."
That being said, Webb told the assembly there is no guarantee things will turn out exactly as they hope and as the research says it should.
Question and answer
Once Webb finished his presentation, the district opened up the floor to questions. One parents said they felt the elementary school, which has already been using Standards Based Grading for several years, has been having issues with the system and it discourages students from trying harder for a level of achievement that isn't possible to obtain.
"That is one of the issues or mistakes that we have made in the past and we will take credit for not addressing," Webb said. "At some point, when they developed rubrics three to four years ago they were instructed that a "4" is something that is at the next grade level and is something that the kids could not really obtain. We just talked about that this morning: that is not the case anymore, that is not the way we are moving forward. A 4 is something that is obtainable. It has to be obtainable or there is no reason to have it. We are addressing that very situation right now."
According to elementary principal Shelly Clay, the elementary is in the process of updating their grading rubrics and making sure students and parents know exactly what a student needs to know to succeed.
"We are in the finalizing stages of all rubrics to match every single essential standard that we have deemed absolutely necessary for each grade level and subject. For every single one of those essential standards, we have developed a very tight rubric," said elementary principal Shelly Clay. "In the past, there might have been some things that seemed subjective, but they are not anymore. That is something we wanted to make sure we were doing in order to do a better job of communicating with parents."
A common thread early in the discussion was parents feeling like the current letter grade-based system has been a big motivator for their children. The parents feared that with the change their children will stop caring and striving to do better.
"We are glad that you are bringing up that the grade is a motivator for your children. Our focus is on learning, not the grade. We want to focus on learning, the journey and then the outcome will take care of itself. But what I'm hearing tonight is that the grade is important too as a motivator," said superintendent Tim Widiker said. "I do want to clarify that when I say the outcome will take care of itself, that I mean that if a student is well prepared by focusing on learning as much as possible and to the best of their ability, the final outcome and the results of their exams will take care of themselves because they are so well prepared."
In addition to refining the current rubrics and creating new ones for the middle and high school, the district is also looking into adding a new component to the report cards in order to reflect a student's behavior — or the attributes of a successful learner — in addition to their grade. A positive behavior program is currently being implemented to address behavior as a separate matter from grades.
Why there is such an urgency for the school district to roll out the new system rather than just doing it one grade at a time to allow students who aren't currently in the new system to be phased out, many asked. Several questioned why they have a firm date to roll out the new system when they still don't have all the answers.
"We felt like two years was an awful lot of time in our minds to get this work done," Widiker said. "And the middle school should need less time because it is already being done in grade five, so it will be familiar to them and they have had it for a number of years already. We knew the biggest issues were at the high school, with the admission into colleges and scholarships, etc. That is why we gave ourself more time there."
Others expressed concern that the district might roll out the system even if it isn't ready or all the answers haven't been found by the time the roll out is supposed to start.
"I will have to say that you will have to trust that, if in nine months we aren't ready to implement, that we won't," Widiker said. "We are not going to do anything that is bad for kids and that is not clear or understandable. If we say 'someday,' someday never comes. That is why we wanted to put a deadline in place. If we don't get there, we will adjust the deadline. But we are also very early into this process. It has just been three months since we decided to do this."
Later in the discussion, many agreed that without the honor of valedictorian to shoot for, students won't want to do better than they have to in order to get by.
"This new system is set up to let kids be the best they can be versus the best at SCC. I've seen so many kids position themselves at the top of their class by their junior year and then decide to sluff off and take regular language courses instead of the college-bound English, and also skip a couple of the AP courses they should really take, in order to shoot for being valedictorian. It happens time and time again. That is the exact thing we don't want to happen," Webb said. "We want kids to compete against themselves and want to get a 36 on the ACT. If they do that, they can go to any college they want to in the nation. If they get a 30, they will get more scholarship money than the state gives for the valedictorian scholarship, which has been reduced from a full ride to $2,250 a year. That is still significant, but it isn't anything compared to that student pushing themselves to get the best ACT score they can and take AP classes to be the best student they can be."
A few people also suggested the district is being too progressive and making their children into guinea pigs. However, Webb was quick to point out the numbers to back up the idea that students aren't as prepared for college as they should be, given that 56 percent of students that enter a four-year university graduate in six years.
"We have the guiding principle and foundation of why. We went to a seminar last year where the speaker said that the difference between good schools and great schools is that great schools do the same things the good schools do, with one addition. They make sure all kids learn. That is what we are striving for," Widiker said. "Yes there are still details we need to work out, but we are not going to jump off the diving board if it is bad for our students."
For more information on the transition to standards based grading, keep a lookout for news releases from the school district and updates on the district website.