No clear explanation for what's going on in D86

We are baffled.

We’ve watched and listened to the discussion of grading practices in Hinsdale High School District 86 from the Sept. 30 and Oct. 14 board meetings.

We’ve been attending and reporting on school board meetings for decades, both at The Hinsdalean and other community newspapers. Typically when a board falls into a pattern of ill-tempered meetings that exceed four hours, it’s pretty easy to figure out the source and motivation behind the dysfunction. But that’s not the case with the current D86 board.

Three board members — Jeff Waters, Peggy James and Debbie Levinthal, all elected in April — along with several parents have presented objections to the new grading practices. Their concerns seem to boil down to six complaints.

1. A class with 100 or 90 percent of the grade comprised of summative assessments, such as unit tests or labs, pressures students to test well and degrades the value of homework.

2. Homework assignments that have little to no bearing on one’s grade, along with a practice of awarding 50/100 even for missing assignments, provide no motivation for students to do them.

3. Changes should not have been made this year, when students are still recuperating from COVID-19 interruptions and when more changes might be in store next year (when practices are aligned between Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South).

4. Some board members and parents were not expecting the changes because the board did not vote on them.

5. The revised practices were not communicated adequately.

6. If parents and students had known about the changes, they might have selected different courses for the 2021-22 school year.

We understand some of these concerns, although we think the rationale put forward by teachers and administrators sufficiently explains why they made the choices they did. And we appreciate the acknowledgment by Chris Covino, assistant superintendent for academics, that sending a notification to parents over the summer might have put many minds at ease.

Other objections — especially the one that students would have signed up for different courses if they knew about the revised grading practices — strike us as far-fetched.

What is most troubling about all of this is the pitch at which this topic has been debated. At the Sept. 30 meeting, Water’s push to continue talking about grading resulted in a shouting match. He was successful only after repeatedly leaning on board President Terri Walker to be the fourth vote to add this item to a future agenda. We wonder if she finally acquiesced just to get him to stop talking.

Frustrations were high again Oct. 14 when that continued discussion took place.

We understand that grading is a big issue in high schools, especially in high-performing districts where many students plan to attend elite colleges after graduation.

But we don’t understand the assumption on the part of some board members that the administration doesn’t really know what it’s doing, the Learning Leadership Team didn’t spend adequate time on this issue and its members are unable to identify consequences of their decisions. Nor can we believe that the previous system — which included some three dozen different ways of calculating grades — was a better alternative.

The district is working to make sure grades are accurate, actionable and accountable — and truly inform what a student knows about a particular subject. This strikes us as a reasonable and even admirable goal.

This isn’t the first time Waters, James and Levinthal (who typically are joined by Walker when it comes to a vote) have exhibited a lack of faith in district educators. They’ve objected to integrated math, the “physics first” science sequence, eliminating the remaining “G” level courses at Central and adding physical, earth and space science education to biology, chemistry and physics classes.

Is this growing record of opposition rooted simply in a resistance to change? Is it a lack of faith in this administration? Is there an aversion to the strategic plan’s call for aligned curricular and academic practices between the two district schools? Is it all three?

Whatever the reason, the current dynamic at board meetings simply isn’t making the grade.