Districts Tinker With Report Cards to Make Better Sense of Standards

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — September 26, 2001 6 min read
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Chicago public school students will have a little help this fall explaining to their parents just what those marks on their report cards mean.

Instead of the simple A, B, C, D, or F in reading, for example, teachers will also report whether students have acquired an adequate knowledge of words for the grade level, use a variety of strategies for understanding what they read, can read a variety of materials fluently, and can respond to literature. The cards will also report how many books each student has read for the term.

“Just giving a grade in reading doesn’t really clarify for the parent how the child is doing and what the child might need assistance in,” said Roberta S. Brooks, the manager of language arts for the district. “I think that [the new report card] helps the teacher focus in on the specific skills a student needs assistance in, and it also helps justify the grade they give.”

The 431,000-student district is piloting the newfangled progress reports in 60 schools, covering grades 1-8, that will describe in greater detail what skills students have or have not mastered in reading, writing, and mathematics.

Still, Chicago is far from a pioneer in the movement to revamp report cards. Since the advent of the current generation of academic standards, districts throughout Illinois and the nation have been tinkering with the time- honored student status reports. In many cases, they have replaced or expanded on traditional letter grades with detailed narrative evaluations or systems of symbols or numbers that experts say are a better way to gauge how well students are meeting state standards.

Schools in Denver; Everett, Wash.; Laramie, Wyo.; and Greensboro, N.C., have joined hundreds of others in building what educators see as better systems for reporting student progress.

“School districts are trying to redesign their report cards so that parents have a better sense of what’s going on,” said Reginald M. Felton, the director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Va. “The traditional A, B, C, D thing is headed out. It just doesn’t have any real meaning.”

Holding On to Tradition

The accountability efforts undertaken by many states and school districts have led in recent years to detailed report cards for districts and schools. Parents often have ready access to information on teacher-attendance rates, the number of disciplinary actions taken at a school, and schoolwide test results.

But such detailed information on the performance of individual students is not widely available, said Mark D. Musick, the executive director of the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

“The information going to parents about the school has been greatly increased, whereas the information about students’ academic performance has been less dramatically expanded,” Mr. Musick said. “In some places, there are efforts to offer more information about academic progress, even through things like electronic portfolios, but those things haven’t penetrated the system.”

Abandoning or reconfiguring the letter grades that have become a fixture in American education over the past century has met with resistance from parents and the public in many communities.

“Letter grades are something parents have lived with and understood since they were in school,” said Mark Forbes, the school board chairman in the Rocklin Unified district near Sacramento, Calif. Officials there are piloting a number-grading system that will report whether students are “below,” “approaching,” “proficient,” or “advanced” on grade-level standards.

Mr. Forbes agrees with the decision to expand the report card beyond subject categories to include specific skills that students are expected to master, but he argues against the number-based scoring system.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he said. “A parent who sees an A knows their child is grasping the material well, and if they see a D or an F, eyebrows go up.”

The number scale the 7,900-student district is testing, he argues, is more confusing to parents who have been accustomed to the letter-based system. A 2 on the scale, for example, means a student is beginning to and occasionally meets standards.

“That to me could [encompass] a huge range of abilities,” Mr. Forbes said.

In Galesburg, Ill., meanwhile, district officials were able to convince most parents of the need for change several years ago as the state went full throttle into its drive for standards- based school improvement.

At first, the 5,000-student district initiated a numbered “rubric” for students in grades 3, 4, and 5 that described whether students “met,” “exceeded,” or “failed” to meet expectations on a variety of skills.

The new progress reports were generally praised by parents as being more informative, but after reviewing community reaction, officials agreed to revive letter grades—with a different meaning.

“Parents still wanted letter grades,” said Neil E. Sappington, the assistant superintendent for instruction for the Galesburg district.

The school district expanded the difference between the top two levels and assigned them letter grades. So a B goes to students who exceed standards, but an A is reserved for those who exceed standards and show they can apply or transfer their knowledge to other situations and topics.

“The challenge we faced then was informing parents that A, B, C, D, and F did not mean what it used to,” Mr. Sappington said.

Winning Over Parents

Educators in the Everett public schools outside Seattle tried to head off any controversy over proposed changes four years ago. They assigned a task force to study the issue and conducted an extensive series of meetings with parents and community members.

After testing the numerical report cards, the 18,000-student district began phasing in the changes last school year with its elementary students. The district hopes to extend the changes into the middle and high schools over the next seven years, as the younger students move to the higher grades.

By then, parents will be more used to the new system, said Richard E. Williams, the director of evaluation and research for the district.

Mr. Williams and other educators anticipate, however, that expanding such changes to the upper grades may take more than winning over parents. The admissions requirements for colleges and universities, for example, put pressure on high schools to maintain the letter-grade tradition. State education leaders in Washington state and elsewhere are now working with higher education officials to expand admissions rules.

“Those are big windmills to go up against,” Mr. Williams said. “We have a lot of students who are National Merit Scholars, and plan to go to Ivy League institutions, who we have to be concerned about. But we have until 2008, when the state will require students to meet grade-level standards in order to graduate, to try to change the system.”

Standardizing Scales

Several Southern states have begun to standardize the percentage scales schools use to determine letter grades, according to the SREB’s Mr. Musick. That has come about, he said, in response to concerns that the awarding of state scholarships based on students’ report cards was leading to grade inflation and tremendous variability in what work was worthy of A’s and B’s.

“What is an A? In some places it means 92 to 100 percent, in others 94 to 100 percent,” Mr. Musick said. “Some states are insisting on a statewide standard, but that doesn’t mean an A in one place is the same as an A in another. More information about what exactly a student knows would be better.”

Despite the ambiguity, many educators predict a difficult transition and suggest the power of tradition will not fade easily.

“I can just [imagine] a conversation when a grandmother asks, ‘How did Betsy do on her report card?,’” said Mr. Forbes of California’s Rocklin district. “The mother will say she got three 4’s and a 2, and when the grandmother asks what that means, the mother will say, ‘She got three A’s and a B.’”

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