Sunday, April 26, 2009

Moving Beyond Letter Grades?

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a story on a New York state school district that has adopted "standards-based report cards." These report cards differ from the more traditional variety in that they aim to measure mastery of knowledge and skills more faithfully:

In Pelham, the second-grade report card includes 39 separate skill scores — 10 each in math and language arts, 2 each in science and social studies, and a total of 15 in art, music, physical education, technology and “learning behaviors” — engagement, respect, responsibility, organization. The report card itself is one page, but it comes with a 14-page guide explaining the different skills and the scoring.

Dennis Lauro, Pelham’s superintendent, said that standards-based report cards helped students chart their own courses for improvement; as part of the process, they each develop individual goals, which are discussed with teachers and parents, and assemble portfolios of work.

Effort and extra credit are not part of the equation, and the report cards do not measure students against each other.

Some years ago, the Chugach, Alaska public school district took the standards-based reporting system a good deal farther. In Chugach, each student works at her own pace, advancing to the next grade level only when she can demonstrate mastery of material through portfolios and other assessments. Some students progress to the next level in the middle of a school year. Others may take considerably longer.

Chugach leaders credit their system with the district's astonishing improvement after years of dismal scores and high drop-out rates. Now, students in the district consistently score above state averages in reading, writing and mathematics, and more than two thirds of graduates go on to college. (For more information, see our story about the Chugach model or our interview with Chugach educator Lee Ann Galusha.)

Any change in how we report students' progress requires strong community support. On this point, the Times article quotes Gerald Tirozzi, executive director of the National Association of Secondary School Principals:

I think the present grading system — A, B, C, D, F — is ingrained in us. It’s the language which college admissions officers understand; it’s the language which parents understand.

A cursory review of readers' comments on the Times story bears this out. Readers interpret the system in Pelham, New York as a shell game, a hare-brained scheme to obfuscate actual results, a cash cow for education consultants, a distraction from sound instructional practice, a bureaucratic burden on teachers, etc.

As unfair as these judgments may be, they underscore the importance of engaging parents and other community partners in any effort to change how we grade students. In her interview with Public School Insights, Chugach educator Lee Ann Galusha cites strong parent engagement as an important reason for the success of the district's efforts:

You need to let parents in on this and have it be a group decision.... The students, the parents and the school need to come together and make a commitment to this.

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