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School Management        < Previous        Next >



Meaningless Report Cards = Poor Management


Q. I don't like these new report cards with smiley faces and cheerful little messages that my child is "growing" in a certain subject. Of COURSE my child is growing! That's what childhood's all about. I need clear, objective feedback. I want letter grades! Why have schools abandoned the clear communication of A-B-C-D-F?


Imagine how stockholders would react if an annual report said that management had "made good progress toward annual financial goals" instead of publishing a simple numerical statement of profit and loss!


But somehow, educators don't understand that parents and the public want that caliber of clarity for the important quality control mechanism that is supposed to be the simple quarterly report card.


Educators are notorious for constantly tinkering with grades. This time, they say they have veered away from simple, objective report cards with the traditional A-B-C-D-F grades because they want the focus to be on the process of learning and the attitudes of the child. They say a report on where the child stands in relation to the national standards that have been set for each school subject is more important than the classic purpose of grades: an objective evaluation of the child's academic progress.


Pundits would say the new grading systems have a lot more to do with the fact that our schools are becoming nationalized through learning standards and curriculum that is much the same in every state, nationally standardized tests, and scoring "rubrics," or frameworks, that are in use to attempt to keep grading consistent from classroom to classroom, district to district, and even, in the near future, nation to nation. Naturally, report cards would have to be standardized and nationalized to follow suit.


Traditional classroom grading began to fall by the wayside in the 1990s when the nation turned to Outcome-Based Education. Though it's now called "standards-based education," the change in schooling philosophy basically set minimum learning standards. If any students exceed those standards, it's great - but the focus is on everybody meeting the baseline standards. Standards-based education is similar to a "pass/fail" system; students are given plenty of time to meet each standard. They may flunk a test three times before they finally pass it, but those three times won't be reflected in the final semester grade, because the standard was eventually met, and that's what the grade is based upon.


Now consider how those methods would play out in the work world: having the opportunity to do the same task over and over until you get it right, and being evaluated (or paid) based only on how you did once, not an average of every attempt. Tremendous inefficiencies, correct?


Besides that basic concern, critics point out that parents and the public have no way of knowing how much more - or less - content the students are mastering in each subject. A "dumbed-down" curriculum is not as evident if the students "look good on paper" with decent report cards. Of course, all grading systems are subjective to some degree, but schoolwork that one teacher might assess as adequate might be totally unacceptable to another teacher. The more schools move away from traditional letter grades and objective, rather than subjective, grading, the less meaningful the report cards become.


Moreover, the new grading system is a lot more confusing to a parent. It's difficult to know what "progressing" means - but everyone knows what it means when your child receives a "C" or a "D" in a school subject.


A big objection is by teachers, who sometimes have to grade each of 20 students on each of 39 assessment areas, four times a year . . . a ridiculously arduous paperwork task that reduces their time for teaching.


Then there's the concern that in most suburban districts, the statewide learning standards are so easy for most of the affluent students that the lack of a chance to get a top-notch grade is a disincentive to achieve. Translation: they can be lazy and still meet the standards. And so gradually, over time, the performance level of the affluent students will slide down to match that of the not-so-affluent. Nobody would be for THAT outcome, but it's already happening in some districts.


From a public policy standpoint, the vague grading systems are unacceptable, too. The essence of good management is to want to be evaluated, to welcome being held accountable by the "customers," who are in this case the parents and taxpayers. The fact that the nontraditional report cards in vogue in education today conceal more truth than they reveal is a sign of poor management that is choosing "spin" over transparency.


But let's get real: local educators don't have much choice. The main reason for the more wordy, subjective report cards that have become popular in the nation's schools in recent years is that everything in K-12 education is being aligned with national learning standards and the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, pronounced "nape"). On the NAEP, students are "assessed" as doing their work on one of three levels:


BASIC (below grade level)


PROFICIENT (grade-level work)


ADVANCED (beyond grade-level work)


Those are the terms you're most likely to see in today's report cards, or similar terms: "needs improvement" or "unsatisfactory" may be substituted for "basic," or "exceeds expectations" or "outstanding" may equate with "advanced." These terms come straight out of the NAEP, the national exam - another example of how public schools in the United States are being standardized into one whole, like McDonald's franchises across the land.


Just as grading has become standardized right along with curriculum and assessments, the vehicle for standardizing grades has been developed to keep grading consistent from district to district. A district will purchase report card software that all teachers use, and no variation from that format is permitted.


The shift away from traditional grades reflects the fact that the focus in K-12 education has been taken off demonstrated knowledge and performance, per se, and put more onto the child's attitude and behavior. That's why you're seeing non-academic comments on schoolwork and report cards, such as "Junior works well with others," or "Mimi seems to enjoy science," rather than straightforward communication about how well your child is doing on facts and skills as measured by tests, assignments and homework.


This doesn't set too well with most parents. They recognize that there is great value and accountability in a traditional, honest report card. A lot of good can come out of the shakeup of receiving a bad grade.


The truth: parents need it, the child needs it, and even the educators need it.


Among other things, letter grades tell the teacher that there is such a thing as good and bad performance. Letter grades also figure in a key aspect of a teacher's job: evaluation. Educational measurement is a basic skill for educators, and it's too bad that the standardized report cards take away their opportunity to fully exercise their professional judgment when they are the ones who know the child best.


Educators who support the minimizing of letter grades often say that in at-risk families, bad grades can result in a beating at home. The rejoinder might be that any excuse will work for a child abuser, and it's foolish to throw out the one reliable motivational tool for at-risk kids - a chance to improve their grades and feel some success - out of vague fears about things out of the school's control.


According to educators in Britain, where letter grades were abandoned long ago, school reports have now become something of a nightmare for teachers. Observers say teachers spend ages writing report cards and choosing which stock platitude seems most apt.  This kind of report tells parents nothing, and tells kids that they can do anything they want in school, and it doesn't much matter because they won't really be graded after they've met the minimum expectation.  


One parent who opposes nontraditional report cards put his expectations of a meaningful report card in these terms: "Can my child perform a particular set of mathematics calculations in a given time? Can my child write a coherent paragraph using proper grammar and conventions? Can my child read a particular passage and then be able to answer a given set of questions relating to that passage?"


Parents have a right to know those answers. And schools have a duty to give them to them. Does your district's report card answer those questions? If not, you and your child are not being well served.


Homework: Write letters to school officials and your elected school board, asking for a return to traditional letter-grade report cards.


By Susan Darst Williams School Management 07 2008

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