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Peoria Public Schools prepares for switch to new grading system

Report cards will look a little different for many Peoria Public Schools students as students in grades kindergarten through eighth grade will no longer receive letter grades. The district is making the switch to a new system called Standards-Based Grading.

Dr. Sandra Wilson, the now-retired Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum, explained to WCBU how the new grading system works.

“A Standards-Based Grading report card really maps out the specific skills that the child either has mastered on grade level, or has not mastered on grade level,” she said. “So a parent can specifically see what their child needs to work on.”

The system ranks individual skills within each subject on a scale from one to four, with four being “above state grade level standards” and one being “below grade level standards.”

For example, the report card for a literature class might give a student a four on asking and answering questions about a text, but a two on identifying central messages or themes in them.

“So if we see a group of students that are really struggling with a particular skill, we’re able to work with them specifically on that skill,” Wilson said. “Instead of trying to weed through lots of information to get to that specific skill.”

Wilson and other proponents say the system effectively maps student progress, gives in-depth feedback and encourages ownership of students' learning.

It's not a new idea. Illinois State University Associate Professor of Teaching and Learning Dr. Jay Percell said Standards-Based Grading can be traced back to the 80's and even to the New Deal. Interest resurged following No Child Left Behind and federal and state education mandates introduced in the 2000's.

“At the same time, you had some assessment experts that were really beginning to question that traditional model of grading and whether or not it was actually evidence of student learning, or not,” said Percell. “Or if students were sort of subverting the learning process and still getting the grades they wanted.”

There are some challenges in adopting a new system. For example, Percell discourages teachers from simply attempting to directly translate a four to an A, a three to a B, and so on.

“Keep an open mind, know it’s going to take time,” he said. “Know it’s a completely different model, don’t try to make it like the old model. The grade books are going to have to change.”

An example of the difference between a traditional and standards based report card, provided by Peoria Public Schools.
Peoria Public Schools District 150
An example of the difference between a traditional and standards based report card, provided by Peoria Public Schools.

McLean County Unit School District 5 first began adopting some Standards-Based Grading in 2016. Sister station WGLT reportedUnit 5 have had issues adapting to Standards Based Grading.

Dr. Kristen Weikle is the superintendent of Unit 5. She said conversations are ongoing, but adds that these sorts of discussions happen with the traditional grading system as well.

“There can be flaws with, what does an A mean to this teacher when it might mean something totally different to another teacher,” Weikle said. “Because of those additional things they’re including in a grade.”

She says the system helps everyone stay on the same page with standards and expectations district-wide. It should be noted Unit 5 uses the standards-based system in their high schools, while Peoria Public Schools has no plans to do so at this time.

District 150’s plans for the high schools end at creating standardized assessments for classes. For example, a biology final at Manual High School will look the same as a biology final at Peoria High.

Percell stresses that using a successful standards-based system relies upon keeping open lines of communication between teachers, students, administration and, crucially, parents.

“I would encourage them [parents] just to come in with a sense of curiosity and say ‘What is this all about? What is it my students are learning?’” he said. “That old adage, right, that parents ask: ‘Hey what did you learn today at school?’ ‘Nothing.’ Well, maybe that’s not good enough anymore.”

The transition to Standards-Based Grading at Peoria Public Schools started with the creation of the district strategic plan in 2019. The document outlines goals for new district-wide standards-based reporting and assessment systems.

An example handout delivered to parents with this year's final report cards.
Peoria Public Schools District 150
An example handout delivered to parents with this year's final report cards.

Wilson says a heads-up about Standards-Based Grading was attached to report cards sent out at the end of this year. Other parent outreach efforts include a web site, an informational video at upcoming "back to school nights" and a "cheat sheet" for parent teacher conferences.

She says it shouldn't be entirely new to some parents, since district kindergartens have used a Standards-Based Grading system for "several years."

“But then they moved on to first grade, they moved on to the 90, 80, 70, 60 averaging grades,” Wilson said. “So they’ve been exposed to a little bit of it, but it may’ve been a while.”

The rollout is slow and steady. Wilson says last year, five teachers tried out Standards-Based Grading on "non-academic standards" like responsibility and engagement.

“They like it because it was very explicit to families how their child was behaving in the classroom,” she said.

Academic standards-based grading comes to first through fourth grade classrooms this upcoming school year, with an expansion to fifth through eighth grade the following year.

You can find more information on the change, including a sample of a standards-based report card, here.

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Collin Schopp is a reporter at WCBU. He joined the station in 2022.