Janesville School District officials have set the goal of making all students “college and career ready,” but some parents, teachers and community members are concerned the district’s grading system is undermining that effort.

Standards-based grading allows students to retake tests, and it doesn’t assign a zero for any work—even if it’s not turned in.

Parents, teachers and others have asked, if the goal is to make students “college and career ready,” why allow students to operate in a system that allows students to disregard assigned work, has few firm deadlines and creates more work for others?

Administrators insist the system will help students learn what they need to know. High school grading policies are never the single cause or a solution for the lack of soft skills and character traits needed in the workplace or secondary education, said Alison Bjoin, Craig High School principal.

Instead, the policies are part of a much larger puzzle.

“They’re about making sure our instruction is adequately preparing kids,” Bjoin said. “It’s about making sure we’re really holding ourselves accountable for what they learn and don’t learn.”

Local conflicted feelings about standards-based grading are mirrored at the national level, where parents and teachers who grew up with letter grades wonder why they have to make the change.

Standards-based grading is in its second year at Janesville high schools, but it’s been around for much longer at the national level. For more than a decade, community members, school boards, teachers and academics across the county have been debating every aspect of high school grading.

The systems vary, but the basic philosophy of standards-based grading is the same: Student grades should be based on what they know and almost nothing else. Some schools don’t give letter grades at all but assign terms such as “proficient” or “near proficient” to a variety of skills.

Here’s how it works in Janesville:

  • Homework is worth 10 percent of a grade.
  • Tests are worth 90 percent.
  • The lowest score a student can receive is a 50 out of 100.
  • Students can retake tests to improve their grades.
  • No extra credit is allowed.
  • Student behavior—such as class participation, being prepared for class and being on time—cannot be taken into account in grading.

Initially, students were allowed leeway in when a test could be retaken. Policies regarding what students had to do to earn a “ticket to retake” varied between departments and between schools, Director of Curriculum and Innovation Allison Degraaf said.

For example, some departments required students to complete all of their homework before they could get a ticket to retake. But that wasn’t always the case, Degraaf said.

In February, the high schools released new rules for a “ticket to retake.”

Now, students must complete the ticket-to-retake process within two weeks of original tests being returned.

Most times, students will be required to make up missing homework before they can retake the test, according to a policy written by Parker High School Principal Chris Laue.

Teachers are not obligated to award points for homework done to earn a retake, according to Laue’s written policy.

Finally, if a test is given the last week of the semester, teachers are not required to allow retakes, according to the policy.

In November, the Janesville School Board received the results of a survey regarding standards-based grading. None of the questions asked if teachers thought the system was useful.

Instead, the survey asked questions about the implementation. For example, “Were teachers getting the coaching they need to implement the grading recommendations?” or would they “like more professional development, resources and strategies around formative assessments (homework) to drive student learning.”

At the end of the survey, teachers were given a chance to express their views in two open-ended questions: “What challenges are you facing?” and “What is working well?”

In their presentation, the district’s curriculum and instruction staff presented the board with a summary of those responses.

On the positive side, teachers reported they had a better understanding of the system, and staff were more supportive of the “ticket to retake.”

On the “challenges” side, teachers found students were less motivated to do homework, that they weren’t taking advantage of the ticket to retake and “staff were doing more work than the students.”

Staff have to make additional time to meet with students, come up with a new or different way to assess student’s knowledge a second time and then correct that work.

The survey didn’t list how many teachers had “challenges” or how many were supportive.

The Gazette filed an open records request for the teachers’ comments, but the school district denied the request on the grounds that it would violate the teachers’ expectation of privacy when giving feedback. The Gazette offered to accept the results with the teachers’ names removed, but district officials said they still would be concerned about the effect it could have on future teacher surveys.

So, it’s not clear how most local teachers feel about standards-based grading.

The pages of Education Week, a national newspaper covering K-12 education, presents both sides of the issue.

In a blog post, Baptiste Delvalle, a middle school teacher language teacher who has taught in the United States and France, said he doesn’t allow retakes.

“Here’s how I explain it to my students: If you’re asked to meet a deadline in a future job, and you’re late or have poor-quality work, you might get fired. If you’re in a relationship and don’t show up to the dates, you might get dumped. If you cross the road without looking, and a car comes zooming by, you don’t get a second chance,” Delvalle wrote.

Delvalle stressed that he and his class work together on testing-taking and studying strategies.

In a counterpoint piece, Chicago-based consultant and former teacher Lisa Westman argues teachers should give students the opportunity to retake.

The purpose of retakes is “not to give students a reason to procrastinate in their studies but to give students the benefit of the doubt and offer them multiple chances to show mastery,” Westman wrote.

Parker High School technical education teacher Bob Getka said he understands the rationale behind standards-based grading.

“Once you leave high school, your grades don’t matter anymore,” Getka said. “It’s really about what you know.”

Once students are in the college, tech school or jobs of their choice, it’s unlikely anyone will ask for their high school transcripts.

Getka acknowledged that under the original system, he saw his daughter’s study skills begin to erode. The revised rules, which were released in February, set harder deadlines and make it more difficult for students who has not done their homework to get a ticket to retake.

What about having a 50 percent being the lowest grade, as opposed to a zero?

“What’s the thought behind having one grade being 60 percent wide?” Getka wanted to know.

If an “A” is 90 to 100, a “B” 80 to 90 and so on, why should one grade range from 0 to 60? he asked.

Placing that bottom figure at 50 percent means kids can recover from one bad test.

Craig’s Bjoin put it this way: “Students should have the opportunity for redemption. It’s possible that they have severe test anxiety, or their dog died, or something is going on in their lives.”

What about prioritizing education over sports, social activities and other interests? What about time management?

They are learning those lessons, said Laue.

It’s a lot easier to study for the test the first time than making up the exam while continuing to do the work in other classes, he said.

As for the additional work teachers have to do, he said that’s going on anyway.

Teachers have always had to design and correct extra credit, or give students additional help so they can keep up with what’s going on in class, Laue said.

Ann Roe is a parent, lecturer at UW-Whitewater and has served as a consultant for the Janesville School District. She also runs Custom College Solutions, a business that helps students and their parents plan for college and navigate the admissions process.

Roe was instrumental is helping the Janesville School District win a Wisconsin Forward Award for “excellence in organizational management.”

Despite being impressed with the opportunities the district offers students, she is not a fan of the new grading system.

In written comments to the Gazette, she provided pros and cons from her perspective as a parent and a college lecturer and from the perspective of a student.

  • As a parent: Roe sees the value in the retake policy “for conscientious parents of low performers, it could be a useful tool to help students stay engaged and feel like all is not lost.”

On the down side, “Parents find themselves nagging their student to complete all work, study hard to pass tests the first time only to be faced with counter arguments about the relative worth of homework in the overall grade, the opportunity to retake the test ... and so on.”

Homework becomes “devalued” in such a system, she wrote. But if it is assigned, “one can assume the teacher sees the value in the work and practice.”

What does the 50 percent rule do for medium to high performers, Roe wanted to know.

“In our house, it led to sloppy habits that will be hard to break and puts us as parents in a rotten spot,” Roe said.

One of her children missed 80 percent of assignments and still carried an A/A- in an AP class.

That wouldn’t work in college nor in the workplace, she wrote.

  • From a college’s perspective: Roe saw no pros to the system.

In college, late work is not accepted, and students aren’t given the chance to retake exams.

  • From a students perspective: Pros include the ability to master the material by going back and redoing parts of an exam.

For high-performing student athletes, it gives them the chance to “prioritize and skip (if necessary) without penalty.”

On the con side?

“In general ... the (50 percent) rule is not useful to high performers and degrades class involvement—everyone is just gaming it to do the least.”

  • As a teacher: The system gives teachers a “carrot of sorts” to motivate low performers. In addition, it gives teachers the “opportunity to re-engage and help students who miss material.”

On the con side, the system “challenges strategies to keep the class moving forward with engaging, relevant material when students are on a ‘Choose your own work path adventure.’”

She also thinks it reduces the incentives for high performers to do their best.

Given the Janesville School District’s support and the national trends, it’s unlikely standards-based grading will go away.

Laue and Bjoin acknowledge standards-based grading doesn’t address “employability” issues, such as being on time, managing their time and doing assigned work.

Students will have to learn those skills quickly if they end up at an institution such as Blackhawk Technical College. The school has developed a set of “core abilities” that include dressing appropriately for class or a lab, calling in advance if you’re going to miss class and communicating with peers and professors in an “accurate, concise and effective manner.”

Here’s how serious BTC is about core abilities: They make up part of a student’s grade.

Laue and Bjoin stressed that the Janesville School District’s new grading system is part of a larger, five-year plan that looks at grading and other parts of student assessments.

“That’s the next wave we’re working on,” Laue said. “How do you assess those skills in a way that is fair?”