Not making the grade: Proviso Teacher's Union Local #571 President Mona Johnson urges the D209 school board not to adopt the proposed "equal interval" grading scale at the meeting April 8. (JEAN LOTUS/Staff)

A proposed new grading system that would give students an automatic 50 percent grade even if they don’t complete an assignment was a non-starter to the Proviso Township High School District 209 school board Tuesday night.

The grading changes are part of a proposed overhaul from the Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Committee targeted for next fall. The concept is referred to as the Equal Interval Grading Scale. But teachers and parents turned out in force Tuesday, calling the concept a “disaster” during public comments.

Teachers and union reps also argued that a 50-percent “floor” gives students the wrong incentives.

“This policy would diminish and demean the students who turn in their work on time, and reduce incentives for doing work,” said Proviso West History teacher Scott Hendrickson. “Students who spend several hours doing work receive full credit, but students who do no work get half credit? This is not just.

“This does not reflect the real world in any way,” Hendrickson added. “Does the tax accountant receive 50 percent of his fee if he doesn’t do the client’s taxes? Does the employee receive 50 percent of his pay if he doesn’t come to work? When students thank me for earning an ‘A’ I am quick to thank them for working so hard in my class.”

The grading changes were part of a proposed reconfiguration based on research from the book Fair isn’t Always Equal by educational consultant Rick Wormeli, who’s also known for his saying, “grading is the elephant in the room.”

According to D209 administrator Dan Johnson, the 50 percent grade floor was one of several related recommendations, along with policies to hold students accountable — such as denying students the chance to “opt out” of an assignment and a creating more consistent grade-weighting system.

But according to teachers Tuesday, the proposal is flawed.

“I believe the no-zero policy will not have the intended effect, but will be counterproductive in preparing our students beyond high school when they have a chance to compete against students from other high schools,” said Proviso West math teacher Ed McNally. Students who were unmotivated, he predicted, now will only become less motivated.

“I’ve been moved by students who overcame inadequacies, sometimes self-imposed, who go on to improve their grades. As a teenager I was one of them,” McNally recalled. “Climbing out of a hole that you dug yourself is a testament to grit.”

The teachers maintained that the proposal was addressing failure rates and not learning. The proposal is also a flawed way to engage students who come to school but do not turn in homework the teachers argued.

 Board members weigh in

After about a half hour of hearing from six teachers, the board cut off public comments — which included speakers talking about unrelated topics — when President Dan Adams announced he was not in favor of the grading changes. The proposal was a “discussion- only” item on the agenda with no action scheduled on it. But Adams straw-polled the board for its reaction.

“I think you have to earn your grade;” Adams said, “you have to earn things in life. I agree with the teachers; it sends the wrong message.”

Board member Kevin McDermott agreed.

“I think it’s a profoundly bad idea to give credit for work that’s never turned in,” he said.

“I’ve heard our principals say, ‘Oh, the grades are good, but the test scores are bad.’ Now you’re asking us to inflate the grades?” asked board member Theresa Kelly, adding that she’s “totally against this because nothing is free in life.”

Board members Francine Harrell and Teresa McKelvy also opposed the grade-change idea.

“I don’t agree because you should not get something for nothing,” Harrell said. “I worked for 31 years and now I’m retired, but I had to work.”

D209 administrator Johnson later made a presentation defending the 50 percent baseline, insisting that one “killer score” on a point-heavy assignment could torpedo a student’s chance of passing a class.

But McDermott asked if the committee’s other recommendations could be accepted without the 50-percent failing grade bump-up and Johnson acknowledged that they could.

Supt. Nettie Collins-Hart said the committee would review the board’s preferences and return with a different proposal minus the grade-boost provision. 

Nearby, Morton High School District 201 in Berwyn instituted interval grading last year, much to the chagrin of a group of parents. Those parents complained at the school board meetings and started a Facebook group: “Parents Against Sinking Standards” (MortonPASS).

According to data presented to the D201 school board in February, failure rates dropped at Morton East and West high schools, yet the higher level students seemed to have less motivation. Fewer honor and AP students earned “As” after interval grading was instituted compared year over year.

And according to the MortonPASS, “A” grades received in AP biology dropped from 22.3 percent in the 2012-2013 school year to 2.2 percent the next year. AP English language and composition dropped from 14.4 percent to 7.6 percent over the same period, according the parent group. 

Mona Johnson, president of Proviso Teachers Union Local #571, said the grading changes were made by administrators without any input from teachers. Division chairs who were on the curriculum committee were “bullied into going along with that,” Johnson alleged. 

“Our students can manipulate this [new system] and figure it out. We are setting them up for failure,” Johnson said, adding that students who turned in work would be the ones punished. “We’re concerned for inequity. We want young people to be successful and accountable for their actions.”

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...