Making The Grade: The Outlook on Standards-Based Grading

Illinois’s second largest school district has been in a period of transition over the past year, with not only a transition in leadership, but a change in the report cards of its more-than-10,000 high school students. Standards-based grading is a system being adopted in districts nationwide, and uses subjective 0 through 4 scale to judge how well students show they’ve mastered a course’s standards.


School Secretary Debbie Dillon says when the grading system was first implemented, phone calls from confused and frustrated parents were numerous. She says the number of calls has since decreased in frequency.


U-46 has been using the system in elementary schools for years, but has just this year rolled it out in high schools. “I could tell where I was in the class better with A’s and B’s than I can with a 3 and a 4”, says Sam Boesch, senior at South Elgin High School, looking to study film.


Standards-based grading works on the concept that students should not be assessed a grade based on an average of classes and tests, but instead on how a student “trends”- a student making upward progress in a class is more apt to receive a higher mark for a semester report. Success at the end of a semester is consequently more impactful on a grade than good marks at the beginning of a semester.


The numbering scale used by teachers is as follows:

0- No evidence of skill (there was no work turned in)

1- Below basic displaying of a skill

2- Basic displaying of a skill

3- Proficient displaying of a skill

4- Mastery of a skill

Teachers assess students on their skills based on on the course’s written standards. The two largest complaints from this system, as stated by parents, students, and teachers alike, are:

A- The standards to be followed are not universal or clearly defined

B- Because a student can not master the final course goals mid-semester, a student’s progress report may have a low grade, but does not accurately reflect how much knowledge a student is gaining from the class


History teacher Jacob VandeMoortel says he often finds himself lost on what to teach, as no state-adopted standards exist for subjects like Social Studies. “One of the biggest problems they have that they need to find a solution for is [to create] state-adopted standards. I often find myself wondering, OK, what standards do I teach today? Do I use the old standards, the common core standards, or do I make up my own?”



Principal Jim Edwards has been heading the change at South Elgin, and says there is good progress being made in the implementation of standards-based grading. “[We’re changing] *how* student progress is measured… It’s been a tough process, but it really does give students, teachers, and parents a more accurate understanding of what kids do and don’t know.” Currently, a little more than half of South Elgin teachers have made the switch from traditional grading system to the new standards-based grading. Edwards expects the district-wide mandate to come sometime within the next 5 years.



In the nearer future, about 600 seniors will graduate in May and many of them heading to colleges. Students find the new grades more difficult to work with, as there is no letter grade to calculate a GPA for college apps and scholarships until a semester’s end. Final transcripts and semester report cards do indeed show an A-F grade, when teachers using the 0-4 standards-based scale convert their grades to letters.



Brandon Hoeg, a senior, says he has seen many friends who have had trouble giving colleges a GPA in mid-semester. “I think a lot of people get upset with things when they don’t understand them, and that’s one of the problems U-46 has been facing.”


Support for the concept of standards-based grading has been overwhelmingly positive and optimistic, but most NEWS3 talked to agreed there are still points of contingency and conflict that need to be worked out district-wide before wider implementation takes place.



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