Meaningless Report Cards = Poor Management
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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?"
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.
letters to school officials and your elected school board, asking for a return
to traditional letter-grade report cards.