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School board hopes to have direction on SBG

SOLON– A Standards Based Grading sub-committee, led by Matt Townsley, Dick Schwab and Lianne Westcot, presented its findings and research to the Solon school board Wednesday night in the district’s central office conference room last Wednesday, June 26.
The meeting was a work session, which was open to the public, but public input was restricted– the session was intended for the board and administration to formulate ideas for a later decision point surrounding Standards Based Grading (SBG).
The sub-committee developed a timeline that has Aug. 12 as a deadline for high-priority topics shown in the report– the board wants to have decisions in place before the start of the school year.
Superintendent Sam Miller said the committee’s charge was to synthesize information shared at the June 3 public hearing and throughout the school year on Standards Based Grading. The goal is to have a “guided document” by July 8.
“The district is committed to implementing standards-based grading,” Miller said after the meeting. “We have areas in our implementation of standards-based grading that needs to improve.  Teachers will play a significant role in addressing concerns and how we proceed as a school district.”
Townsley, the district’s director of instruction and technology, explained to the board how the committee looked at major themes highlighted by the public, and by teaching staff. The first talking point, and according to Townsley the most important one, cited time.
“Based on the staff spring survey feedback I would say the number one concern was time. So I would say that this is of the highest priority for our staff to make sure that they have this ironed out before the school year starts,” Townsley said.
Will teachers have an appropriate amount of time? Townsley cited optional teaching days that have been offered to Solon educators throughout the summer, but recognizes the need for more. Board member Westcot said the staff wants a voice.
Board member Dan Coons believes they should have a representative teacher from each subject attend a meeting before Aug. 12.
“We all realize English is different than math in re-assessments. So adding that voice, at least being able to be heard in this process, I think is going to be important,” Coons said.
Superintendent Sam Miller cautioned board members about the reality of the summer months, citing the fact that many teachers are out of town and there is limited time to construct a representative body of teachers– he said the school year would produce better participation from the staff.
Still, the group agreed it was important to attempt to resolve the issue before the start of the 2013-14 school year.
“It’s worth a try,” Principal Nathan Wear said with enthusiasm.
The second talking point surrounded the grading scale. Members of the sub-committee said they should have a consistently-applied and understood system that utilizes district resources appropriately. One major concern was the need for better communication about PowerSchool, the online assessment system.
The board stressed a need to communicate to parents how PowerSchool works. Since final assignment of grades is to be carried out at the end of course, student progress must be regularly put up on PowerSchool, otherwise it can push back the time for reassessment. Parents may not find out where things are for their students after a few weeks.
“Somewhere along the way there has to be checks so that we don’t get to that point where we’re six weeks behind,” said Wear.
Another high priority had to deal with the role of homework in the SBG system. Multiple board members agreed that teachers should hand out meaningful homework intended for students to develop understanding on the subject. This looks different for different subjects, but the emphasis is practice rather than grade.
Wear used the analogy of an athlete with his or her coach, or a musician with his or her instructor. In order to learn the skill, Wear said the students need feedback.
“I’d love to have us encourage teachers to look at the homework, and make comments,” board member Schwab said.
Miller said he knows of teachers who are providing helpful feedback to students, and believes it is also helpful for parents.
“I think it’s something we can clean up. I’m glad this is on here as a theme. I’m anxious for teachers and administrators to get together and hash that piece out,” Miller said.
Many parents at public meetings stressed the importance of homework as a way for students to learn responsibility. The group discussed that concern. Wear believes that work outside of school is important, but since staff cannot ensure responsibility after school hours, he believes practice and feedback during the day is more critical for student understanding.
Although no concrete decisions were made concerning SBG, board members appeared to be pleased with the direction they undertook at the work session, and are moving towards a consensus. The next board meeting is scheduled for Monday, July 8, at the central office conference room.
“I am proud to work in a district where the board of education values these types of things,” Wear said. “I’ve been in other districts where that is definitely not the case. The fact that we’re talking about best practice, instruction, homework, engaging parents, student achievement– I can’t imagine what other discussions we should be having at this time.”