|A teacher marks the mathematics section of a fifth grade progress report that is now being used in Carbon School District. The elementary grades report cards now use numerical values rather than letter grades. All the subjects have subcategories to describe a student's strengths and weaknesses in a more detailed manner.|
In the old days it was easy. Grades in school were simple: A,B,C,D,E.
People who got an A knew they were close to the top of their class. A C grade meant a student was "average." An E grade (or in some systems an F) meant that the student had failed that subject.
Grades came on a report card and that card usually gave grades for both scholarship (or skill) and for citizenship. Often students who got a C in math for example could still get an A in citizenship because the teacher felt the student did his or her work, and behaved in class. Some of that grade in citizenship also came from whether the teacher felt the student was working to their capacity as well.
Grading was easy to understand, probably because everyone had used that system since the beginning of American education.
But like everything else in the world, grading has changed.
"Parents want to treat the marks we give students today like they did the A,B,C system," said Carbon School District Superintendent David Armstrong. "But it isn't the same."
The newer type of report card (now called a standards based progress report) is largely a result of the No Child Left Behind initiative put forth by the president. The reports to parents are based on standards, not on grades. Presently these kinds of progress reports only run up through the sixth grade. Seventh through 12th grade students still have letter grades on which to base student achievement.
"The report parents receive for elementary grade children is now standard across the state, and I think it is a much more valid indicator of student achievement than letter grades were," said the superintendent. "It is designed to inform the teacher, administration, student and in particular parents about the concepts a child has acquired or not acquired."
But specifically how are the new report cards different from those of the past?
First in the traditional report cards the subjects that are being evaluated are listed by name. In the new progress reports the major subjects are themselves defined by curriculum or content standards.
Secondly, in the traditional report cards the letters A-E reflected an individual teachers expectations, student effort and achievement. This often led to students getting a high grade in a subject when they had one teacher and a much lower grade when they had another teacher the next year. In other words it was somewhat subjective. In the new reports numerical values indicate the mastery of grade level standards. In addition both scholastic and skills achievement are reported separately from the effort a student might give.
Third, in many cases under the older system, class content was driven by the textbook being used in the class or by the teachers central belief on what should be taught. This can bring a great deal of difference to what a child is being taught in one class to another, from one school to another and from one district to another. In the standards based progress report the curriculum and instruction are aligned with the state and district standards that have been approved and agreed upon.
"It used to be if you were a student in a class with 30 kids and you got an A you figured you were doing better than the other 28 or 29 students in the class," said Armstrong. "But that was based on comparisons to others achievement rather than the actual concept of what was being learned."
In the past some teachers graded on a curve or on a hard scale. The curve meant someone who had the highest score on a test in a class could get a score such as 82 and get an A. On the other hand some tested by a set scale that said if no one got above a 90 on an exam there would be no A's given.
"In the case of this new system the knowledge a student has must align with the standards for them to meet their grade level," stated Armstrong. "It creates a situation where it is very clear what needs to be taught ... and what needs to be learned."
The standard progress reports use the numbers 1-4 as gradients and it breaks down the various subjects into sub-categories to be sure that students know where they are at within the subject matter, as well as overall.
Armstrong explained that the numbers work like this.
A four on a progress report means that a student is beyond his class and is working on next years standards or above.
A three means that a student is working at the grade level on that particular aspect of a subject matter.
A two says that a student is not on grade level, and probably about a year behind. That would indicate that some type of intervention is needed by both the school and the parents to bring the level up to a 3.
A one shows that a student is two or more years behind in that area of a subject. They are not on grade level now, and they probably won't be next year either.
"When a student is in that position it takes a lot of intervention to get them up to grade level," said the superintendent.
In the scholastic and skills area the progress reports looks at multiple areas within one subject. Using a fifth grade progress report in particular, a good example of this is the reading/comprehension section. The progress report doesn't just give a grade in general to whether a student can read and understand what they read, but also has categories that include using phonics and word analysis to decode words, demonstrates grade level vocabulary development, reads the grade level test fluently, comprehends the grade level reading and if they can monitor and correct their own reading. Each of these areas gets a one, two, three or four. In this way the students weaknesses can be exposed and can be given extra attention.
The most comprehensive and complicated part of that fifth grade progress report is the mathematics section. It lists five different areas in which a student is judged (Number sense and operations, algebra and computing, measurement and geometry, statistics, data analysis and probability and mathematical reasoning). Each of these categories also have their own set of values that must be graded as well. Again this gives the teacher, student and parent a chance to find the areas where a child is deficient.
Despite the fact this program seems to have it's definite advantages, many in education and in communities across the state don't like it.
"Making change is very hard, even when it is for the better," said Armstrong. "I would like to see this same type of system in the secondary schools as well, but there is a lot of opposition to that idea."
Armstrong says that many parents still see the numbers on the progress reports the same as they did letter grades, but that in time they will recognize the difference.
In the area on the progress report that deals with what most people used to call "citizenship" there are four values the student can be given; (O) outstanding, (S) satisfactory, (I) improving, (U) unsatisfactory. Again there are four main areas of evaluation (study habits, behavior, programs, interventions) and each of those have subdivisions as well. There is also a place on the report for teacher comments as well.
Probably the most important part of the report is the fact that it breaks down for parents where a child's weaknesses are. Those weaknesses if left unchecked, can often create major problems in a child's later education. If those weaknesses are found early, intervention from all angles can take place. And if parents understand the report, it can help them to aid their child in their education in specific ways, rather than just using a shotgun approach with the problem.
"It's essential parents become involved in their kids education," says Richard Wood, testing coordinator for Carbon District. "Education is the best legacy we can give children. It's as if we are in business together; to give our kids the best education we can provide."
Editors note: This is the fourth in a series of five stories concerning testing, academics, goals and outcomes in Utah schools in general and in the Carbon School District in particular.