Are letter grades on the way out in Riverside Elementary School District 96? Although no decisions have been made, a committee will be formed to study the matter as part of a new five-year strategic plan set to be adopted at the school board’s June 16 meeting.

In the new five-year strategic plan, a strategy listed under the “student growth and achievement” goal is “implementing a standards-based monitoring and reporting process.” 

Typically, in standards-based grading students are evaluated on their progress in achieving learning goals and are typically not given letter grades. Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95 eliminated letter grades and has had standards-based reporting since 2013. 

Instead of getting letter grades students are usually evaluated as meeting expectations, exceeding expectations or working toward expectations.

“It really forces teachers to be focused on the standards and making sure the curriculum is aligned with those standards,” said District 95 Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski, adding it puts the emphasis on growth more than attainment. 

“The major criticism is that there is a very small group of students that are motivated by attainment, of seeing an A, and those students, and the parents of those students, I think, sometimes struggle with the concept,” Kuzniewski said. “But, all in all it’s been really good.”

Angela Dolezal, the director of teaching and learning in District 96, said that while she favors standards-based reporting, a committee will examine the issue and report to the administration and school board sometime in the next couple of years. 

No change is planned at this time to the district’s current grading system, which now has no letter grades until fourth grade.

“We’re going to work with a committee of stakeholders to determine if, how and when we would have a standards-based reporting system,” Dolezal said. “We have to determine what year to form that committee. We haven’t determined which parts of the plan are going to fall in which year.” 

Dolezal said standards-based reporting can give a truer picture of a student’s learning than traditional letter grades.

“It’s showing us what how much our students truly do know rather than if they can score something for a point, for a number, for a grade,” Dolezal said. “We have students who may get Cs or Ds but have strong knowledge in the standards that we’re teaching. Unfortunately, they may not score well on that assessment, and so they end up with a lower grade because of that.”

Dolezal said it was her goal to switch to standards-based reporting. Before coming to District 96 two years ago, Dolezal was a principal in Oak Park School District 97, which uses standards based reporting. Dolezal said most of people working on the student growth and achievement area of the strategic plan favored standards-based reporting.

 “Unless there was something that pulled us away from doing it, yes, we will most likely head in that direction,” Dolezal said. “But it will be the committee working together to put us in that direction and to develop that process.”

Switching to standards-based reporting has not yet been discussed at the board table.

“I really don’t have an opinion on it,” said school board President Dan Hunt. “It’s not something I’ve ever talked with anyone in the administration about.”

Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye said implementing standards-based reporting would not necessarily result in the complete elimination of letter grades.

“I think it’s more about how you can enhance the communication you can have with families specific to the standards and their child’s progress towards those standards,” Ryan-Toye said.

Full-day kindergarten to be explored

The new strategic plan also calls for a task force to look into the feasibility of offering full day kindergarten in District 96, an idea that has been discussed intermittently in the past. With recent expansions at its elementary schools the district now has, or is very close to having, the classroom space it needs to offer full-day kindergarten.

“I anticipate that next year will be a study year for our task force to look at the possibility of full day kindergarten,” Ryan-Toye said.

The new strategic plan, which will replace a plan written in 2016, was created by a group of 34 people who included administrators, teachers, parents, two school board members and four teenaged former District 96 students. The process was led by consultants from the Consortium for Educational Change. The plan was developed in 10 two-hour sessions over the past six months. All sessions were held virtually.

Participants said that the process worked well, even with all the sessions being held virtually.

“I actually think this process ended up being better,” said school board member Wesley Muirheid, who, along with Hunt participated in the strategic planning process.