20 February 2008

Re-educating about Report Cards

More and more teachers, schools, and districts are moving toward grading practices which represent what's best to do in terms of evaluating students. You regs here have certainly been privy to many of my thoughts about this (and if you're new, just click on the grading label to access all posts related to the topic). Even if we change what we are doing in the classroom, there are still plenty of struggles in terms of reporting grades and re-educating the public about this different style of evaluation.

The New York Times recently published an op-ed piece entitled "So Is That Like an A?" which highlights this struggle. As the Hartford schools implemented a new standards-based report card, the effect on parents has been one of confusion. I agree that a seven-page report card is likely too extensive and not user-friendly for any stakeholders. But what the author of the article misses is the bottom line: what does the grade mean? I confess that as a parent, I’ve always focused on the basics. I want my children to be curious, enjoy learning, to read for pleasure, to be polite, to do their homework and to try not to hate school. If my kids got A’s or B’s, I got a pretty good sense that they were mastering the necessary skills. If they did much worse, I knew that it was time to call their teachers. The idea behind the new report cards (in Hartford and elsewhere) is to separate achievement from behaviours so that the grades that are represented mean something specific. An "A" in most teachers classes is a hodgepodge of learning, extra credit, points taken off for missing/late work, participation, etc. I have no doubt that such a mixture of meaning doesn't matter to some parents---the honor roll bumper sticker is more important to what it means to the other neighbourhood parents than what it actually represents about their child.

We don't have a lot of these kinds of report cards at secondary yet. Even at elementary, there is a wide distribution. (In my district, the cards are generated using Excel---and I have to say that I'm rather impressed that you don't need a fancy-dancy gradebook and reporting program to make communication happen.) My hope is that as we re-educate parents at the elementary levels about grading and reporting that they will ask better questions about what happens at secondary. I saw a glimmer of that earlier this week when I saw an elementary teacher who has a child who is a high-school senior. This teacher's familiarity with best practices in grading were giving her heartburn to see how poor grading practices in high school are affecting her child. "Go, get 'em, tiger!" I told her.

The revolution in grading and reporting is slow in taking root---but it is starting to be more visible in schools and media. We just have to keep working on re-educating stakeholders.

6 comments:

Roger Sweeny said...

One of the major purposes of the grading system at my school is determining who will graduate. People who get a passing grade in all their required classes and enough others do. The rest don't.

How does a multi-page report card fit into that?

For example, one of my students got the highest grade in the class on two of the unit tests last term. She is taking the course for the second time and knows a lot. However, on the third test she got a zero because she did it in a bathroom with another student when they were both supposed to be doing it in a learning center. She also didn't do several major projects.
Her term grade was an F.

I assume that her multi-part report
would show both good and bad for the course. So how do you decide whether she graduates?

Do you somehow combine the various parts of each class's assessment to determine whether credit is or is not given--in which case you have, for one very important purpose, reduced your assessment of the student's performance to a two letter pass or fail grading system?

Does each student have to have a minimum grade in everything that is reported? Can a student do well in some of the things that are reported but not in others and still graduate? If so, how many of which ones?

What would happen to my (alas, not hypothetical) student?

Mr. McNamar said...

We've had the conversation before, but I'll put it forth again. The idea of standards based grading is the right method. The problems, however, are multiple--especially in non-acadmic schools.
1. How many times does a student need to demonstrate a skill competently?
2. What happens when a student simply does not offer enough samples?
3. What exactly are the essential skills we must assess?
4. How do we make that jargon accessible to the student and parent?
5. How do we convert our standards based mentality to the collegiate system?

The Science Goddess said...

All excellent questions by both gentlemen. I wish I had all of the answers.

You both ask about the "number crunching" issue. I really struggle with this because I do use standards based grading...but the reporting system is traditional. At the moment, I don't have a hard and fast way to do this. Instead, I am conferencing with each kid when it is the reporting period. We look at their scores together, talk about strengths and weaknesses, and determine what letter best symbolizes their learning at this time. Maybe that sounds "squishy," but as long as the student can explain what their grade means, everyone has been happy.

Mr. McNamar---about your other questions. For me, essential skills are in the standards and making the jargon accessible is pretty simple. The GLEs are fairly friendly. If a student does not provide enough samples for me, I give them an "Incomplete" until they do. As for the number of times, it's just professional judgment.

Your last question about the difference between standards-based mentality and translation to collegiate is one I've been pondering a lot recently. Oddly enough, the start of all of the standardized testing movement was because colleges couldn't count on the grade reports from schools to tell them if a student was ready or not. Instead of helping develop good grading practices, they just insisted on one type of measurement. At some point, they're going to have to look more broadly.

hschinske said...

I used to compare grading practices regularly with a friend who had a kid at the same grade level as mine and working at about the same level. Surprise, surprise: we found different teachers had COMPLETELY different understandings of what various elements of the standards-based report cards actually MEANT (as in, what student behaviors/scores/etc. should be recorded where). Not exactly "standard."

It gets particularly difficult when students are studying above-level curriculum, but getting mediocre scores on it. Do they get marked down on the 1-2-3-4 grades? Or should they get automatic 4 grades because they're still above grade level? the two teachers questioned had opposite practices.

Eventually the school solved the problem by ... taking the 1-2-3-4 grades off the report cards again. Gee, that helped.

Previously, a different school my kids were at went through a round or two of different grading policies. My favorite was the one where teachers were told that everyone who wasn't in serious trouble should be considered "progressing" until the end of the year -- so nearly all students had grades of 2 all year, and then at the end you heard whether the final grade was 3 or 4. Most parents, naturally, translate a 2 as a C, so that wasn't at all popular. I thought it was hilarious.

The Science Goddess said...

"Standardization" among teachers is a real problem---regardless of the type of grading system. It takes a lot of dialog and time to achieve reliability in scoring, but we need it. I'm not so concerned about consistency with the reporting practices on behaviors. It would be nice, but recognizing learning of academic content has my vote for priority.

I'm not a fan of the "progressing" kind of report card. As you describe, I don't think that it gives parents an accurate picture of achievement.

hschinske said...

It depends where you record the behaviors. If a teacher has the attitude that no one will pay any attention to the little check boxes about behavior, so you've got to mark kids down on the 1-4 grades in order to make a point, then the students' academic achievement gets obscured.

It's the Myth of the One *Real* Grade Per Subject that is the problem, I think. You just cannot put all that conflicting information into one little number or letter.

I think you ought to be able to look at a progress report from across the country and have a general idea what's going on with the kid and where they are in each subject. People testing progress reports should try out whether they can adequately represent common grading dilemmas, such as a child doing A work and not turning all of it in, a child doing out-of-grade-level work (accelerated or remedial), etc.