Editorial: Changes needed for SBG
Op-Ed · March 08, 2013

West Branch Community Schools’ introduction of standard-based grading at the middle school includes good plans and good aspects, but it could be improved to help both pupils and parents.

Before we dive into our suggestions, we want to say up front that the school district is showing numerous indications that it is trying to learn what parents and pupils like and dislike about the new system with every intention to improve it.

One of the biggest indicators is that the district introduced SBG only to the middle school this first year, and that was only after several teachers piloted the system the year before. Second, the school hosted a public meeting at the high school that drew numerous parents with concerns. Third, the superintendent recently interviewed many middle school pupils in all grade levels about their thoughts on the system. And, fourth, the superintendent participated in a thorough, three-part question-and-answer series with the West Branch Times about some fundamental concerns.

So we are glad to see the district implementing standards-based grading with the hope of creating a more effective way of measuring knowledge, not to hop on an education-fad bandwagon.

The school district plans to spread SBG to the high school, and we think that will be fine if the school reintroduces hard deadlines for homework and provides families with user-friendly report cards.

The old system had hard deadlines for homework. If homework was turned in late, pupils only got partial credit, or no credit. SBG rejects that practice under the premise that it masks what the pupil actually knows. The new system makes the acquisition of knowledge the primary — actually, the only — goal.

In its simplest form, we agree with that premise, in part because of our next point of creating a report card that easily explains what Johnny and Suzy know. But more on that in a moment.

There are four key reasons why hard deadlines should return:

• It helps a child develop discipline. Discipline is a fundamental trait to getting anything done, just like knowing addition and subtraction are fundamental to all higher math.

Teachers are taught to make sure pupils stay “on task” — that pupils do not dawdle or get distracted. In fact, West Branch schools have not lessened the insistence that pupils put away distractions when class begins.

Children are still marked “tardy” and “absent,” and while that no longer counts against their grade, those are still reported to parents. We think getting to class on time goes hand-in-hand with homework deadlines.

• There are numerous ways hard deadlines affect a child’s day-to-day life. We expect parents to send children to school dressed in clean clothes appropriate for the weather. We want children who are sick to stay home for 24 hours after a fever breaks. We want them bathed, fed and well-rested. Without those things done, a child can easily be distracted from doing their best, or affecting the children around them.

• The discipline necessary to make hard deadlines takes a long time to learn, and needs to be practiced in all areas of life for us to be successful. Is there anyone reading this editorial who has not been distracted by Facebook or Twitter at the office? And you had hard deadlines in school.

When WBHS senior Cade Jones traveled to state wrestling to defend his title, he had to win four matches in a row to do so. He did not get to “redo” a match, and there were no second chances to win first place. You win, or you go home and someone else takes the top prize — it’s that simple. Athletes accept this truth, and so can our pupils.

The same is true in most real-world jobs. Customers and employers only have so much patience for missed deadlines. There comes a point where customers will stop calling, and employers will find someone else. Insufficient personal discipline will quickly lead someone to the unemployment line.

• The curriculum is designed for each grade level. It is not unreasonably difficult. The standards are minimums that professional educators believe the majority of children in that grade level should be able to attain. They are not made to be easy, but they are a low enough common denominator.

While most children are able to reach these standards, there is still room to blow past them, which is why we have “A” students, or, in standards-based grading, “E” for “exceeding.”

By removing deadlines, we send the message that learning these standards may be too difficult for pupils to attain, that the work is more difficult than it actually is.

This reminds us of another sports analogy: Those coaches who are able to get more out of athletes than even the athletes believe they can do. How is it our football team has been able to achieve winning seasons year after year even though it constantly loses gifted and talented players to graduation? The difference is that, unlike sports opponents, no one in the classroom is trying to make a child fail. Teachers and parents want children to succeed.

So while we agree that missed deadlines should not count against a pupil’s grade, it should result in consequences that make missing deadlines less desirable than getting homework turned in on time. Missing recess, staying after school, or missing sports practices or games to get caught up are all viable consequences that teach pupils education is more important than sports or play.

However, while some pupils respond to negative consequences, some respond to positive ones. An honor roll, “homework passes” and end-of-quarter parties are all ways to inspire children looking for a reason to give that extra effort to excel.

As far as report cards, that is a simple matter of making them user-friendly. Right now, they seem to favor the teachers’ way of thinking, not parents.

The old system used ABCD and E (or F). Everybody knew what that meant. That system is even better than systems which try to use numerals for grades because some people see “one” as a number smaller than “five,” yet others see No. 1 greater than No. 5.

We understand that BDS and E system (Beginning, Developing, Secure and Exceeding) tries to use those letters to stand for particular words, but it just does not translate as simply and as quickly as the old system. The new report cards also do not provide a summary grade for each subject, which parents desperately want.

Further, it is not as simple as counting all the B’s and D’s versus all the S’s and E’s — some of the standards seem to carry greater weight than others.

Why not combine the two? Yes, still list the standards and give them each a letter grade, but also provide a summary grade for each subject. Let A stand for “exceeds,” B stand for “secure” and so on. Add a legend to the report card which says that. The parent should not have to struggle to understand a report card, whether it is the individual standards or the bigger picture.

We are glad to see the school working hard to develop a system that takes strong theories and long-proven practices to help bring the best out of our children. We strongly suggest the school district reintroduce hard deadlines to help pupils succeed and user-friendly report cards to help parents understand.

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