Cards On the Table

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The three women seated around Dona LeBouef's butcher-block kitchen ta~ble look more like a bevy of P.T.A.. moms than a rebel army. Dressed in coordinated shirts and pants and denim jumpers, they're articulate and polite. Classical music plays softly in the background as they sip their coffee and review the weapons in their campaign: a large sheaf of photocopied newspaper articles and editorials, old reports cards, and petitions.

Their target are pilot report cards introduced by the public school system here last fall that eliminated traditional letter grades in the elementary schools. The new format, tested citywide, was designed to more accurately reflect the teaching going on in the classroom and to provide families with more detailed information about their children. School officials thought parents would be pleased.

They were wrong.

"We were flabbergasted," says Jean E. Germani, the mother of three children in the schools. "We've seen 30 years of an A-B-C format."

So Germani, LeBouef, and others launched a group called Parents for Quality Education to counter the district's effort. Members of the group feared that the pilot report cards reflected deeper and more troubling changes taking place in the school curriculum. And over the past year, they have met repeatedly to plan a strategy for derailing the new report cards before they get too firmly in place. They won a partial victory.

Meanwhile, teachers who have put in long hours for two years serving with parents on a district committee to craft the pilot program have thrown up their hands in despair. "There's been a major breakdown in trust between parents and the education system," says Albert Benetti, the father of a kindergartner and a 2nd grader, who has strong reservations about the pilot report cards. "And now we want to make sure that the way we're interpreting things is the way they're interpreting things. That we're all on the same page."

"We're taking so much heat from different groups that it's just really annoying," he adds. "If I had the money right now, my children would be in private school."

That all this is happening in Cranston comes as a shock to its residents. It isn't the sort of town given to vituperative, ideological debates about education. The third-largest city in Rhode Island, located just south of Providence, the community of 76,000 still tends to view itself as largely immune from big-city problems.

Many of its mostly Catholic, middle-class families have lived here for generations, attending the same schools as their parents and grandparents. Pride in the community and support for the school system run strong and deep. School administrators like to trumpet the fact that in 1981, the federal government identified the Cranston Reading Program as a national model for reading instruction.

But mention report cards, and voices rise and tempers flare. On both sides of the issue, parents and teachers complain that they have been personally assaulted, their views discounted or derided, their concern for children thrown into question.

The controversy has unleashed a fury largely unknown in this conservative community, pitting parents against teachers and against each other.

At issue is one of the most sacred traditions in American education: the use of letter grades to denote student achievement. The truth is that letter grades have acquired an almost cult-like importance in American schools. They are the primary, shorthand tool for communicating to parents how children are faring. Without them, there would be no honor rolls or class valedictorian. Get a good grade, and Grandpa will be proud. Get a bad grade, and kids know not to talk about it much. Schools use letter grades to signal whether children have mastered their subjects, to select groups for educational courses and programs, to motivate and reward students, and to help youngsters and their parents understand where performance needs to be improved. To trifle with grades, as Cranston educators learned, is to attack one of the most basic notions about schooling and competition in America.

Yet, across the country, principals and teachers are taking another look at student report cards for a variety of practical and philosophical reasons. The shift to kindergarten and primary classrooms that allows children to develop at their own pace has led some educators to question the use of letter grades at an early age. Such grades, educators fear, cannot take into account the widely differing maturity levels of young children. The National Association for the Education of Young Children, for example, advocates that elementary schools look more closely at their report cards for ages 5 to 8, to insure they reflect students' growth over time and focus more on children's strengths.

Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A's, Praise, and Other Bribes, is one of the most strident critics of letter grades. "What grades offer is spurious precision, a subjective rating masquerading as an objective assessment," he writes in the October 1994 issue of Educational Leadership. He argues that "grades of any kind, even when they are not curved to create artificial scarcity--or deliberately publicized--tend to foster comparison and competition, an emphasis on relative standing. This is not only destructive to students' self-esteem and relationships but also counterproductive with respect to the quality of learning." Kohn cites studies suggesting that grades may depress creativity, foster fear of failure, and undermine interest in education for its own sake.

The push to develop standards for what students should know and be able to do has also led educators to rethink report cards. Traditionally, report cards have reflected how students perform in relation to their peers in the classroom. They have provided less detail on whether students have mastered specific concepts or skills in relation to a fixed set of expectations.

To give parents a better sense of what those skills are, some schools now rate a student's performance on long check lists of skills and subtopics, rather than in such broad categories as reading. Districts also have begun to experiment with narrative report cards, videotapes, and portfolios that can provide parents with greater insight into what their children are learning and how well they are learning it.

Such changes, primarily in elementary schools, are surfacing in places as diverse as Los Angeles and Houston; Elmhurst, Ill.; Ann Arbor, Mich.; Cherry Creek, Colo.; and Somers, Conn.

"I think what you see today is people, particularly parents, asking for better and more useful information on students' learning," says Thomas R. Guskey, a professor of education at the University of Kentucky, "and in response to that, schools have developed reporting systems that are trying to provide more accurate and more useful information."

"As we talk to educators in different parts of the country, there seems to be a strong thrust toward reporting student learning in terms of clearly specified learning criteria, rather than relative standing among classmates," he adds. "It's harder to do that. But one of the things that we find consistent in the research that has looked into grading and reporting are the detrimental aspects of grading on the curve. When you do grade on the curve, it makes learning a highly competitive activity. Students compete against each other for the few scarce rewards--the high grades--that are going to be administered by the teacher. It sets learning up as a win-lose situation for the students. And because the number of high grades is typically limited, most students will be losers."

So when educators here in Cranston began questioning their grading practices, they felt they were in good company. "There were no red flags that went off in my mind," recalls Edward J. Myers, the superintendent of schools.

In 1987, the school system revised its literacy curriculum to reflect changing state mandates and educational research. Literacy no longer meant just spelling, handwriting, and reading comprehension; it now included writing, speaking, and listening. The school system introduced more quality children's literature into the classroom and trained teachers to use process writing, in which children are encouraged to write and rewrite their work for different audiences. At the same time, the district revised its mathematics curriculum to bring it into line with the standards the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics developed.

By 1990, a handful of schools had begun to change their kindergarten report cards to reflect this new approach. Teachers rated their students on various skills based on whether they were showing "satisfactory development" or "improvement needed." There was a small space reserved for narrative comments. Reaction from parents and teachers was relatively quiet and largely positive.

In 1992, a committee of more than 25 teachers and administrators began to rethink the report cards for grades K through 6. In the fall of 1993, they launched a pilot in seven schools for grades kindergarten through 3 only. Only a handful of parents served on the committee.

The old report card had rated students in key categories--such as reading, spelling, and handwriting--on a scale from A for "outstanding performance at instructional level" to E for "does not meet instructional level standards." Beneath each category, teachers could check off skills or effort that needed to be strengthened.

The revised report card for grades 1-3 used a three-level grading code, under which C stood for "consistently successful," M for "making progress," and I for "improvement needed." The revised kindergarten report card asked teachers to rate whether students demonstrated a particular skill or concept "most of the time" or "not yet."

A survey of parents and teachers in the participating schools in February 1994 uncovered mixed reactions. Parents, in particular, complained that the highest marks students could receive were a row of straight "C's." They also said phrases like "making progress" were too vague to let them know where their children stood.

In March 1994, the report-card committee was reconstituted to include more parents. A call went out to the Cranston Education Advisory Board, a parent-advisory group, for help. But out of the thousands of parents who could have participated, only 10 responded. By now, the committee had swelled to 40 individuals, including 25 teachers, five administrators, and 10 parents. Their charge was to refine the pilot and expand it throughout the elementary grades.

Many of the teachers on the committee felt that the changes were long overdue. Millie D'Aguanno, a teacher at Woodridge Elementary School and the vice president of the Cranston Educational Alliance, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers, says, "We just began to look at kids differently. When you have 1st- and 2nd-grade kids who are at all different points on the continuum, it's so difficult to say that the child that's having difficulty has to get a D. Maybe he couldn't do it because he just was not ready. Á So I just felt, and a lot of 1st- and 2nd-grade teachers felt, my God, we just need to look at these kids differently. We have to assess differently. And we have to evaluate differently."

"I hate report cards," agrees Mary Crawford, a 5th-grade teacher at Glen Hills Elementary School, with 28 years in the school system. "Some kids will say to me, 'I know I'm going to get D's. I'm not going to make the honor roll.' And some parents won't accept anything less than an A or a B. C is not a 'good grade.' Well, C is an average grade. But it is not acceptable. So there's a lot of pressure."

The committee reviewed report cards from around the country. It considered using narratives, but rejected them as too time-consuming and subjective. It argued back and forth about the use of letter grades. In the end, it settled on a 6-point scale that would provide more gradations than the C-M-I format but that could not be equated directly with A, B, C, D, and E. On the new scale, 1 would equal "inconsistent progress," and 6 "excelling," for a student whose self-motivation, participation, and achievement exceeded grade-level outcomes. (The school district eventually told teachers not to use the designation for "inconsistent progress" because educators could not agree on what it meant.)

Rather than giving students an overall mark for reading or math, students would be graded in individual subcategories, such as "reads for a variety of purposes" and "computes accurately."

A special box on the report card indicated whether the teacher had modified her instruction or expectations to accommodate a student with special needs or limited proficiency in English.

The goal was to show students' gradual growth in specific skills and competencies required by the curriculum over time. As long as youngsters mastered the competencies by the end of the marking period, they could earn a 5--for "achieved"--whether they had mastered the skills quickly or slowly.

Committee members made another key decision during that spring of 1994 that many would come to regret: The pilot report cards would be tried out citywide, in each of the district's 18 elementary schools. The experiment was to include both the already popular kindergarten report card and the new report cards for grades 1 through 6.

The panelists acted at the urging of the district's parent-advisory committee, whose members felt that all parents should have a chance to experience and react to the new format. The plan was to pilot the report cards twice during the current school year--once in the fall and again in the winter--and then survey parents and teachers for their reaction. Although the Cranston school board knew about the committee's progress, it did not vote on the plan.

Maureen T. Kirby, the chairwoman of the report-card committee and the principal of William R. Dutemple Elementary School on the east side of town, looks back with amazement at the naïveté with which she and her colleagues awaited the coming storm.

"What we tried to do with the report card was make it work for all the individual needs," says Kirby, a petite blonde who worried off 10 pounds this troubling past year. "The student population is so diverse that I didn't feel A B C was going to do it anymore."

Shortly before school began, district administrators introduced the pilot report cards to teachers. Some 3rd-, 4th-, and 5th-grade teachers, in particular, were not happy. They had not been implementing the literacy curriculum for as long as their colleagues in grades K-2, and they had received far less training and support.

"Because so many teachers, especially on the intermediate level, were uncomfortable with the change, they couldn't explain it to the parents," says Janice Santos, a 5th-grade teacher at Hope Highlands Elementary School who served on the committee. "Even though they appeared to be supportive, they didn't totally believe in it."

At the urging of the parent-education advisory board, the school district also agreed to hold parent workshops on the pilot report cards last August. Although the school system advertised the workshops in its newsletter and mailed information home to parents, the meetings were sparsely attended. The first session, at the public library, drew only nine people; the second, seven. "And we had a very positive response from those parents," says Kirby. "Over all, we left with a feeling that the parents are interested. They're concerned. There was a real sense that we're working together on this."

Last fall, the school district produced a half-hour show on the report cards for the local cable- television system. And two weeks before the pilot report cards were scheduled to be released, it held six additional workshops in elementary schools across town. The first went smoothly. Then educators hit Hope Highlands.

Hope Highlands Elementary School sits on a hill on the western side of town, home to the city's more affluent baby-boomers. The two-year-old building, known locally as the "castle," includes a separate kindergarten wing and a large, central foyer. It is, as one parent puts it, "the place where anyone who's anybody in the town of Cranston has their kids at school." Many of the parents describe themselves as overachievers who want the best for themselves and their children.

Jean Germani, who helped launch Parents for Quality Education, is one of those parents. Germani and her husband run a dry-cleaning business in town. Germani was incensed that the school system had been working on a pilot program for two years without giving parents details until the last minute. "Maybe we're traditional," she says. "I consider us as a group to be moderate." But Germani believes the A-B-C format is universally understood and tells parents "exactly, precisely, where our children stand. It's so objective."

Another concerned parent was David N. Dulude, a former high school teacher and school board member who has a 5th-grade son at the school. "We had what we felt were some very well-founded concerns," says Dulude. "The report card gave no indication, in any concrete manner, as to how the child was doing. It was a very, very subjective system based on this feel-good mentality that is prevalent in education today."

"In order for a parent to understand how his child is doing," he asserts, "you see papers coming home each week with grades on them. Then those grades have to be reflected in a mark. Something solid. Here, we see 'substantial progress,' or 'moderate progress,' or 'progressing slowly.' What does that mean? We felt we weren't being given the information, as parents, to help much. And then, on top of that, we were given a handbook that only a specialist in educational jargon could understand."

Parents objected that their children were only being rated in subcategories. They also disliked the way the categories were broken out. Math, for instance, was listed under the broader heading of "literacy." Speaking and listening, which some parents viewed as nonacademic and judgmental, had separate categories. There was no longer a separate category for the subjects of spelling or handwriting.

Dulude and others decided they'd heard enough. Germani and a small group of parents picketed in front of the school the week of parent-teacher conferences last fall. The two dozen core members of Parents for Quality Education circulated a petition asking parents and other taxpayers to oppose the new report cards and request a return to an A-B-C system. Attached to the petition was an editorial from a Los Angeles newspaper about outcomes-based education--the philosophy emphasizes rebuilding schools around the skills, knowledge, and attitudes students should have to graduate but has been widely criticized as encouraging mediocrity.

Although the report-card handbooks referred to "learner outcomes," educators in Cranston were stunned that anyone would perceive them as pursuing outcomes-based education--a charge that they flatly deny. They felt like they were fighting ghosts.

Approximately 1,300 people signed the petition, which was distributed at school events and sports banquets and displayed prominently in Germani's store. Many educators on the committee felt blind- sided. "She will tell you that she has 1,300 signatures," scoffs Kirby. "But how those signatures were obtained was a disgrace."

That view is shared by some parents who supported the pilot report cards. Lynn Aberger is the p.t.o. president at Waterman Elementary School and the mother of a 1st and 6th grader. She joined the report-card committee this spring, after parents at her school began to express concerns.

"There were parents who were very concerned that the change in the numbers also meant a change in the curriculum," she says. "Though it wasn't true, there were a lot of parents who were very concerned that this was heading toward outcomes-based education; that there were going to be no objective standards anymore; that everything that the children received would be purely subjectively based. So there was a lot of concern that this was a trend toward something bigger, and 'let's stop it now.'"

Other developments in the district only added fuel to the fire. During the pilot, the elementary principals decided to suspend honor rolls at their schools for one year because of the report-card changes. The district is also scheduled to change from junior high schools to middle schools this fall, and many parents were worried that dropping letter grades in elementary school was a precursor of things to come. "There were parents who said they were eliminating all tracking at the middle schools because of this," recalls Aberger. "Parents who had all kinds of wild ideas that were going to happen. The overreaction was very strong."

Aberger, however, likes the new report cards. "I think by junior high and high school, when the child is an adolescent, that is a closer entrance to the real world. And the real world says that there are rocket scientists and brain surgeons, and there are people who are going to do other things and have other interests. But I think that to typecast a child at 2nd or 3rd grade and say, 'You're incapable of learning' is wrong." She believes the old reports did just that.

On Dec. 12, 1994, the five-member Cranston School Committee listened to more than two hours of heated and bitter testimony from people on both sides of the debate. Searching for a compromise, the school board unanimously agreed to return letter grades to the pilot report cards in grades 1-6 in time for the January marking period. It also directed the district to survey all parents of 1st through 6th graders. The surveys were mailed out Christmas week. They asked parents whether they would like to continue with the new report card, add letter grades to it, or see additional changes. Parents were not asked whether they wanted to return to the old system.

About 2,000 of the 5,000 parents surveyed returned the questionnaire by Jan. 4. But of those, 1,501 parents said they did not want to continue with the new report card their children had received at the end of the first-quarter marking period. And 1,638 indicated that they favored adding letter grades to the pilot system. The majority of teachers in grades 3-6 wanted letter grades added, while those in grades 1 and 2 did not.

"I was exceedingly sorry that it wasn't allowed to run through January," Aberger comments. "What happens is that you hear from people who are opposed because those are the people who motivate themselves to get out and do something about it. What you don't hear from the silent majority is, 'Hey, I got more out of my parent-teacher conferences than I've ever gotten before,' or 'I know more.' You don't ever hear from the parents who had anything good to say. You hear from people who have bad things to say. And change is always hard."

At another tense meeting in January, the school committee rejected a plan to abort the pilot-test entirely. Instead, it voted to keep the pilot report cards intact in the primary grades. In grades 3-6, teachers would assign letter grades in the core subjects. Although the subcategories would be retained, they would only be used to identify areas where students needed further improvement.

That same week, Linda DiCecco, the mother of two children in the school system, filed a complaint with the U.S. Education Department's office for civil rights. DiCecco alleged that the pilot report cards discriminated against disabled and limited-English-proficient students by "blatantly identifying them" in writing. In response, the district told teachers to ignore the box that asked whether they had modified their teaching because of a child's special needs. But DiCecco is still pursuing her complaint.

In the few weeks remaining between the board's vote and the release of the January report cards, the school district rushed to print stickers outlining the letter code so that teachers could affix them to the top of the report cards. In an incident that further ruffled feelings, two of Germani's daughters received report cards with letter grades but without the stickers attached. The teachers had accidentally neglected to apply the new stickers. Germani blamed school officials for the mix- up.

Last month, district officials, on the advice of the report-card committee, recommended that the current, compromise system be kept in place for the coming school year, while a reconstituted report-card committee works on an alternative. The idea is to hold parent-education meetings at each elementary school and to carefully survey parents about their desires and concerns. The school board did not vote on the moratorium but gave its tacit approval, and the district is moving ahead.

Neither side is particularly happy with the standoff, although the controversy has died down. Joe Ventetuolo, a member of the school board and a former principal of Cranston East High School, says, "I actually think we did a good job on that. You can't satisfy everybody." The pilot report card, he asserts, "was difficult to understand, even for me as an educator. It took me a half-hour, even three-quarters of an hour, to decipher it."

"There's no reason why you can't convert what you're doing to a letter grade," he argues. "If that's what this community wants, give it to them."

But teachers, in particular, feel that their hard work and views have been slighted in favor of a small minority of parents who have exerted inordinate pressure on the school board. And they are particularly upset that the experiment was altered before it had run its course.

"This has set us back with teachers," says Superintendent Myers, "because they are much less enthusiastic about joining committees, giving time, because there is a perception that if a pressure group comes forward, their views are going to be washed out."

This spring, when the report-card committee met for the first time since the debacle, only one teacher showed up. A week later, three teachers came out of more than 20 who had served on the committee. "And I said, 'I hope you understand why there are no teachers here,'" recalls D'Aguanno. "Teachers worked very hard. We're not saying, 'You didn't take my opinion, or you didn't do what I wanted, so the heck with you, I'm not going to be on the committee anymore.' I just think teachers felt they were humiliated. Some very nasty things were said at those public hearings. And people really felt like, 'Who needs this?'"

One such teacher is Deborah Boehm, who has a 2nd-grade class at Woodridge Elementary School and who chairs the state's whole-language association. Her classroom is overflowing with bins of children's books. On a recent Friday morning, she is seated in a comfortable, wooden rocking chair, reading the story Somebody and the Three Blairs aloud to about 20 students who are scattered at her feet. After Boehm finishes, she asks the children if they can think of other stories that are modeled on traditional fairy tales. The students rattle off a remarkable list of high-quality children's literature in rapid-fire order: The Three Little Wolves and the Big Bad Pig, Lon Po Po, Prince Cinders, The Paper Bag Princess. Most of them can readily describe what a literary model is and how it works.

Later, Boehm drags out large books, based on popular children's stories, that her students have written and illustrated themselves. She pulls out book bags that she has crafted for parents to use with their children, including stories, journals, and hands-on materials. Clearly, she's a committed teacher, one you'd like to have on a committee discussing literacy and how it should be assessed. But she felt insulted and demeaned by the reaction of some parents.

"I'd lie in bed until 2 or 3 in the morning, knowing that I shouldn't take it personally," she says. "It did make me understand that parents don't know what's going on in the classroom. But the attitudes Á I don't need that. I'd rather sit home and make one of these book bags for three hours."

"We are professionals," argues Joan Goyette, a 2nd-grade teacher at Hope Highlands Elementary School. "And we went through all this schooling, plus we continue to go to workshops and seminars."

"I think the most important thing that many of us as teachers have to remember is that we do have to listen to the parents," she adds. "That's important. But, on the other hand, I think they have to listen to us, too. It definitely has to be a give-and-take."

The conflict in Cranston demonstrates just how easily miscommunication can occur between teachers and parents. The communication breakdown here is all the more ironic because the primary purpose of a report card is to communicate in language that everyone can understand.

As the tensions between the two sides escalated, educators and parents realized that their long- held assumptions about what letter grades represent differed dramatically.

Parents like Germani and Dulude, for example, assumed that the letter grades used in the elementary schools were the same as those used in Cranston's junior high and high schools, where an A+ represents 97-100, an A 93-96, and on down the line. Teachers did not share that view. Many of them perceived letter grades as inherently subjective. As professionals, they exercised discretion and judgment, although they tried to amass as much evidence as possible to document their decisions. James F. Cofone, the principal of the Stone Hill School, says, "I can remember as a principal often being concerned that when we used A's, B's, and C's, we didn't always have consistency among the teachers. And then I'd go to a meeting and hear a parent talk about how objective a grade was. And I thought, 'This is amazing.' I think those numerical averages just became tradition in their minds. Even though we didn't use them, they did."

To the teachers who served on the committee, the new report cards--while imperfect--represented a tremendous step forward, in both the level of detail they were providing to parents and the kinds of evidence they used to make their decisions. Many teachers say they would never go back to the old system, now that they know their students so much better. They are keeping detailed observational notes on children, collecting pieces of their work in portfolios, designing performance assessments that ask students to apply what they know, and creating scoring rubrics for use in the classroom.

"That was where the meat of everything was, the documentation of it," Kirby, the committee chair, affirms. "We had workshops with the teachers where we showed how to set up a rubric, how to set up the criteria. But that was never shown to parents, which was unfortunate."

When teachers reviewed portfolios with parents during conferences and explained how they had arrived at their decisions, it seemed to allay their concerns. But, in general, many parents did not have a clear image of what grade-level achievement looked like according to the new criteria. And this was complicated by the fact that each teacher chose what evidence to collect and how to judge it.

In retrospect, many people agree, Cranston needed to slow down. After all, it had not changed its report cards since 1981, and then, only slightly. Perhaps, teachers now say, they should have piloted the program in only a few schools that volunteered for the opportunity. Maybe they should have begun in grades K-2 and slowly worked their way up the system. Maybe they should have spent more time--and energy--showing parents the portfolios and classroom work that undergirded the report cards and worried less about changing the report card itself.

Cranston's experiences are by no means unusual. When the Houston Independent School District piloted narrative report cards in grades kindergarten through 3, a negative article in the Houston Chronicle got reprinted nationwide. The changes were eventually criticized on CNN and by Rush Limbaugh. "What we realized from that," says Lynn Barnes, an assessment specialist with the Houston district, "is that we needed to involve the parents in an ongoing way, especially parents who didn't just love it. So we pulled in the very vocal parents, and we worked with them through last year and during last summer." The district also made the new report card voluntary for schools. It's now in use in 70 of the district's 176 elementary schools.

When Elmhurst, Ill., an upper-middle-class community about 15 miles west of Chicago, dropped letter grades in its elementary schools in 1992, some parents were outraged. Since then, the school system has added a grid to its 4th- and 5th-grade report cards that lets parents know how their child is doing in relation to the class, in terms of both effort and the pace of their learning.

"For the parents who are on the far right, that still isn't enough," says Jean Cameron, the assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "They want to see that letter grade, and they want to see it starting in kindergarten. I really don't think you can compromise or build bridges with that group."

In other places, like Cherry Creek, Colo., and Tucson, Ariz., controversy has been diluted by working with a small number of pilot schools, involving parents early in the process, or leaving it up to each school to develop its own report card in collaboration with parents. At the Polton Community School in Cherry Creek, for example, parents demanded more norm-referenced information. So a box was added to the report card that compares the child's performance to that of others in the class.

Grant Wiggins, an expert on student assessment and the director of programs and research for the Center on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure in Princeton, N.J., argues that grades are not actually the problem. "Using a single grade with no clear and stable meaning to summarize all aspects of performance is a problem," he writes in the October 1994 issue of Educational Leadership. "We need more, not fewer grades; and more different kinds of grades and comments if the parent is to be informed."

"Grades are clear if clear standards and criteria are used, in a consistent way, by each teacher," Wiggins contends. "Grades are unclear if they represent idiosyncratic values and inconsistency from teacher to teacher. Narrative comments don't change this fact."

One of the problems with letter grades is that they can reflect so many things: A child's effort, his progress, his relative standing in the class, his ability to master certain content. There is little agreement among educators about which of these variables report cards should reflect or how best to express it. Teachers also differ in the kinds of evidence they use to arrive at a letter grade and the weight given to each one, from teacher-made tests and homework assignments, to classroom discussions and group projects.

Guskey, at the University of Kentucky, says the literature on report cards is mixed. "What we find is that no matter what method of grading or reporting is selected, it serves some purposes well and not others. Letter grades, for example, aren't inherently bad. It's just how we use them. The advantage to them is that they can communicate in a very brief form an overall summary of learning. The disadvantage is that a great deal of information is abstracted into a single symbol."

"The point that I try to stress in my writing--and I think others have as well--is that reporting is more a task of effective communication than it is just documenting achievement. So if those forms become so complex that parents can't interpret them, or they can't derive meaning from them, they are not serving their purpose well."

In Cranston, the battle lines have been drawn. Germani and Dulude still want a return to letter grades based on numerical scores. Germani is the only member of the new report-card committee who voted against continuing the pilot program in its modified form.

Kirby rides around with an audiotape of Alfie Kohn in her car. But she knows Cranston is not ready for Kohn and his crusade to eliminate grading altogether. She has concluded that she will never win over the Germanis of this world. "Should this group of parents be more valid than others?" she asks. "I don't think they should." She also believes that more parents are coming around, and that there is enough good will to continue working toward a solution.

At least some parents who opposed the report-card changes appear willing to work with her. Michael Anthony, the father of two children at Dutemple Elementary School, found the pilot report cards "very confusing. It just seemed like they were throwing out the tried-and-true system."

"I'm the product of traditional education," notes Anthony, who was born and raised in Cranston. "A B C's. And you knew if you came home with a D, you didn't have TV, and you hit the books. I think this report card was designed to address a self-esteem issue. For a child who has a D, it's as if you can't tell them to hit the books, they'll be so depressed. That's language I don't understand."

On his own initiative, he got in touch with the U.S. Education Department and got a list of its "blue-ribbon" schools. Then, he asked the schools for their report cards, which he keeps in a large manila folder. He spoke with about 15 schools, in states from Alabama to Minnesota, before he found one that used a system similar to that being proposed in Cranston.

But Anthony, a young, exceedingly polite insurance salesman, says, "I don't want to just lob fire balls from the outside." And he has stuck with the report-card committee. "I think it will take work. I think it will take longer. But I think they can do it," he says.

No one, at this point, expects Cranston to drop letter grades in the upper elementary school anytime soon. But many supporters of the changes are hopeful that the subcategories on the pilot report cards, and the changes in grades K-2, can be refined and built upon.

"I'm a strong believer in academic freedom for teachers," says Ventetuolo of the school board. "Whatever they do within the purview of their charge, they have the right to do it, and they must be protected. On the other hand, when they're reporting to a parent, they have to convert what they're doing to a language that parents can understand. Unless you're able to convert from the educator's jargonese, you're going to create a problem."

"As an old-time educator, starting back in the 50's," he adds, "we did our thing. At the end of the road, we made our report. The parents accepted it. I guess we were little gods back then. But today, they want the involvement. You really have to keep the information flowing on a daily basis. The only way you can overcome that whole thing is just by flooding the airwaves with all the information you regularly can."

And information, after all, is what report cards are all about.

Vol. 14, Issue 38, Pages 23-28

Published in Print: June 14, 1995, as Cards On the Table
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