Urbana board discusses assessment, attendance policies


By Casey S. Elliott - celliott@civitasmedia.com



The Urbana City Schools’ board learned more about the district’s grading, assessment and attendance policies at a special work session Thursday.

Some of those topics were brought to the board by parent Randy Dunham last year. Dunham asked the board to suspend several policies and reissue them after a review, citing them as unfair, unconstitutional and removing his rights as a parent.

Dunham’s biggest complaint was with attendance policies, specifically the six-day absence rule and a requirement for doctor’s notes. He said the absence rule allows for up to six unexcused absences a semester; more would need a doctor’s note. He said he does not believe the district can compel him to take his child to a doctor and pay a doctor’s fee if the student is not sick enough to warrant it. He wanted more leniency on the number of days allowed for absences, or to give teachers leniency to excuse absences.

Urbana Superintendent Charles Thiel provided copies of the attendance policy for all Urbana schools to the board and noted it may change soon because of recent changes in state law about chronic absence and truancy.

Board member Jack Beard asked which issue was the biggest in the district. Thiel said that would likely be similar to Dunham’s concerns – the parent saying the student is fine to miss school, but the school considering it an unexcused absence.

“In most cases, in grades kindergarten to five, it’s a parent problem and not a kid problem,” Thiel said, saying the child wants to go to school, but a parent cannot get the student to school.

Champaign County has a truancy officer who deals with the issue for all the local school districts, Thiel said. Some of that involves visiting families at their homes to resolve the attendance issue. Severe cases can end up in family court.

Changes to the policy over the years have been minor, with tweaks to the number of parental excuse days allowed or any changes in state law to adapt to the policy. Thiel said administrators attempt to nail all that down and make it clear for parents, so their children are not penalized when the family chooses to take a vacation, for example, at the end of the school year and the student ends up missing a test.

“I say to the kids, if you are not in class it’s hard to graduate,” Urbana High School teacher Katie deNijs told the school board. “It’s a problem. I don’t know how to solve that problem. I wish they could see the value in being there (in school) every day.”

Board Vice President Darrell Thomas said he would like more information on how big of a problem absences are in the district.

“Do we have an issue where we have a large number of students not coming to school for various reasons, or is it isolated?” he asked. “Do we have an issue we need to try to address?”

Thiel said he would get more information to the school board regarding the current attendance issues in the district.

Grading and assessment policies discussed

The school district began working on a new grading and assessment policy in spring 2009, Thiel said. The goal was to create a consistent assessment framework among grade levels and courses. A task force of 26 – a mix of administrators and teachers in all school buildings – looked at the research on grading and assessment and current practices at the schools and crafted a new policy. One of the big changes was “going from a somewhat loose designation of what were the expectations for instruction to tighter expectations in regards to the standards passed” in Ohio’s laws.

The current policy allows teachers the flexibility to offer students a chance to “reassess” – or take tests – again, to improve grades. But this has a downside, as teachers and staff explained at the board meeting. Some students don’t bother to study for tests and just see what’s on it, then seek to take it again. Some students will seek to find out which assignments will be part of the grade, so they do the work on those rather than on all of them.

“I don’t think they are studying for the tests,” Urbana Junior High teacher Carmen Lacy added. “Their philosophy has turned into ‘Let me take the test, see what’s on the test, then I’ll see what I need to study.’ That kind of drives studying habits. When they get into college, they can’t do that.”

Reassessment has another downside, as board member Alyssa Dunham said. She compared the experience of one of her children and his friend, who both went to Wright State University. Dunham’s son’s GPA is about where he expected, but the friend’s GPA is low.

“The kid that got used to taking (tests) twice is now on academic watch,” she said, noting the student said taking tests twice became routine, but Wright State doesn’t allow that.

Alyssa Dunham added it isn’t every student, that other classmates of her son attended Wright State and do not have this issue. She said it is up to the student to make the choice on how to study, but is disappointed the reassessment option in Urbana contributed to this outcome.

Staff and administrators are exploring what motivates children to achieve, and the assessment policy is supposed to guide that. deNijs and Carmen Lacy said at the meeting the general feel from the staff is frustration over the policy and frustration at the inability to get kids motivated.

“When students won’t practice the skills because they don’t see the value in doing the practice in the homework … if you have a bad reader that doesn’t see the value in doing the reading, or think they’ll pick it up in discussion, or reassess later, they will never become better readers,” deNijs said. “It’s a struggle and I want to see what works best for students. I don’t know what the answer is.”

Motivation to do the work is a big part of that issue, Thiel said.

“Nobody has the answer to what motivates every kid every day to do their best,” he said.

DeNijs said whatever is changed or implemented, part of the issue is going to be addressing outside concerns of students that affect success, such as family troubles at home, or a lack of preparatory education at preschool levels.

Staff and administrators hope to have the assessment committee meet again to look at the overall assessment policy and update it. Board members indicated they would be interested in taking part in the discussion and report back to the school board.

By Casey S. Elliott

celliott@civitasmedia.com

Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.

Casey S. Elliott may be reached at 937-652-1331 ext. 1772 or on Twitter @UDCElliott.