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A, B and C being replaced at Lake Bluff Middle School

Sixth and seventh graders at Lake Bluff Middle School can say goodbye to grades of A, B and C starting next school year, with eighth graders to follow in the 2018-2019 school year, according to District 65 officials.

The school is switching to an evaluation system called standards-based grading, which breaks down a topic into component parts.

For each of those components, students will receive an evaluation of Introduced, Beginning, Approaching or Mastery, according to a sample evaluation sheet supplied by District 65. Parents will get a report card at the end of each term with those detailed evaluations instead of an overall letter grade, officials said.

"It paints a clearer picture of what students know and what they are able to do," said Kellie Bae, curriculum coordinator for the district.

District 65 began researching standards-based grading two years ago and administrators made the decision to switch in the beginning of 2016 with the input of a teacher committee, Principal Nate Blackmer said. Blackmer and the committee presented the change to the Board of Education at its Feb. 14 meeting.

When asked why the decision was not announced for a year, Bae said educators needed time to prepare.

"The middle school needed to put some structures in place," Bae said. "We were making decisions about how to roll it out and to what extent. Would it be sixth grade first and and then seventh and eighth? There was work we needed to engage in to have a clearer vision."

The district plans to update middle school parents on the switch during the next several months through its website, newsletter and at meetings, said Blackmer, although dates have not yet been set. So far there has been no reaction from parents, officials said.

As an example of how the standards-based grading system will work, students currently taking Language Arts classes get a single letter grade for an entire term of work. Starting in the fall, Bae said one portion of Language Arts – key ideas and details – could be divided into:

•Citing evidence to support analysis of the text,

•Determining a theme for a text and how it is conveyed through particular details,

•Describing how plot unfolds in particular story or drama, as well as how the characters respond or change.

"We’re able to break out individual components of what the child is learning," Blackmer said. "My child really has a handle on this concept, but might struggle to understand another concept."

Standards-based grading aims to separate learner characteristics from actual learning. Learner characteristics include such things as turning in homework on time, following directions, asking questions in class, getting along well with others and being attentive in class, Bae said.

"With traditional grading, it can be not what (students) know or don’t know, but struggling with getting an assignment in on time," Blackmer said.

Standards-based grading means more work for teachers, but "that’s not how we make decisions," Blackmer said.

To prepare, teachers are undergoing professional development and administrators are looking to visit districts that have already switched to standards-based grading, Blackmer said. Area school districts that have already switched include Libertyville District 70, Deerfield District 109 and Northbrook District 28, which has a pilot program that started this school year.

Lake Bluff Elementary School switched to standards-based grading at the beginning of the current school year, but the elementary school hadn’t been using letter grades before. Instead, the elementary school used a descriptive evaluation that was similar to standards-based grading, said Elementary Principal Margaret St. Claire.

"It just isn’t very different for us," she said.

Blackmer said the biggest challenge for his school will be being able to communicate with parents who haven’t experienced standards-based grading.

Timothy Dohrer, an assistant professor at Northwestern University and director of its Master of Science in Education program, agreed.

"There’s a lot of heavy lifting a district has to do to educate parents and the community and sometimes the teachers," Dohrer said. "None of us who are adult or parents were graded this way. It’s hard for all of us to move ourselves outside the box that assessments mean A, B, C, D or F."

Dohrer said standards-based grading can offer advantages.

"One of the things that is difficult for teachers and kids is that we boil these very complex things kids are doing in school into a single letter or number," Dohrer said. "That’s a problem. I don’t think anyone believes it represents 100 percent of their learning."

In districts that have made the switch, Dohrer said communication has changed.

"I know a lot of teachers have said it’s moved them away from conversations about grades to conversations about learning," Dohrer said. "The conversations with parents change from how to do I help him get an A to how do I help him write better."

@reporterdude