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The blind leading the blind: Taking the guesswork out of grading

I don't mean to ruin your weekend, but I was shocked to find this in
today's paper. George, please don't have a heart attack! At the end of
the piece, you will find an email address to contact this poet of pap.
Somebody should tell her that she is dead wrong. Otherwise, why bother
with the grades at all?! Cancel all report cards--just send home the
test scores and get it over with.



Taking the guesswork out of grading

Seeking order, schools revamp report cards

By Laura Pappano, 1/21/2001

As a nation, we love report cards. There are report cards for Congress,
health-care providers, and schools. The Chicago public schools issue
report cards on parent participation. And before the new millennium, the
Center for Y2K & Society judged preparedness in a form that Americans
grasped: They issued report cards on who was ready, and who wasn't.

Whether you are an A, B, C, or D student, you know where you stand
because your report card told you. And it's a label that sticks. We know
George W. Bush was not an A student. But his ascension to the presidency
raises a question: What do grades stand for? And what good are report
cards today, anyhow?

In an era when clarity is king, when standards and high-stakes tests
set the tone, where does the report card fit in?

Carol Pacheco, a Boston Teachers Union representative for elementary
grades, says everyone knows that report cards are subjective. ''Even
teachers say, `That one doesn't mark high and it makes us look bad,'''
she said, while other teachers ''yell about those who give the higher marks.''

Increasingly, however, schools want to bring order to what has been
rather free style. Grant Wiggins, the director of Relearning By Design,
a New Jersey education consulting firm, said the standards movement is
pushing schools to revamp report cards to match student performance on
standardized tests.

Schools also are cutting out jargon that has left parents puzzled by
report cards. ''Parents can't get a straight answer to the question,
`How's my kid doing?''' Wiggins said.

Joanne Benton, director of elementary education in Lexington, is
spearheading revision of the district's elementary school report cards,
shrinking them from three pages to one. She wants report cards to
reflect what they want children to learn (no more assessments of
invented spelling that's out of vogue, for example). She's also excising
educational jargon, and trimming the ''umpteen categories the teacher is
supposed to grade.''

''Parents don't care which strategies kids are using when they are
reading, they just want to know if they are reading,'' said Jo-Anne
Granger, a teacher at the Bridge Elementary School in Lexington, who
also is working on the new report card for grades 1 and 2.

In Boston, 18 elementary schools are piloting a new report card. But
rather than including less information, they are giving parents more.
''Instead of just having `Reading, A' - what does that tell you? - we've
broken reading down into a few sub skills,'' said Mary Nash, principal
of the Mary Lyon Elementary School in Brighton and cochairwoman of the
Elementary School Report Card Committee.

The new report cards separate grades given for effort and those for
achievement, because teachers had difficulty grading students who tried
hard but did poorly, Nash said. In addition, numbers 1-4 will be used
instead of letter grades, and educational benchmarks are being realigned
to mesh with the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Report
card grades and MCAS scores have been so disjointed that students have
earned A's and B's on report cards - and failed the MCAS test.

Cacenia Duran of Roxbury found grading so contradictory that she
couldn't figure out how her two sons were really doing. That's why she
has begun to teach them via home schooling.

The report cards from the Young Achievers School in Jamaica Plain,
Duran said, ''would state that my child needs improvement in a
particular subject, but when I sit down to a parent conference, it would
be `Oh, they are doing very well and improving on their comprehension.'
Then when the report card comes out again, they are failing. How is it
they are failing today, and a few days ago they were improving?'''

The problem with letter grades, Wiggins said, is that people think they
know what they mean when it may not be clear, even to teachers. Teachers
in Boston, he said, ''don't know what would get an A in Brookline.''

He says students should get two grades, one an internal comparison to
classmates and another a comparison to classmates across the state. The
deception of letter grades, appearing to be clear and concrete when
they're not, is one reason many schools don't use them.

Lexington's elementary schools, Benton said, don't use the word
''grades,'' preferring ''codes'' to describe the numbers or words on
report cards. And at Milton Academy, which enrolls children in
kindergarten through Grade 12, the term report card isn't even used.

They are ''comments,'' said John Warren, academic dean. As the name
suggests, the bulk of student assessment is narrative. It isn't until
ninth grade that students get a letter grade along with comments. This
allows teachers to present a more complete rendering of a student's
progress, Warren said.

But he knows that parents yen for letters. By seventh and eighth grade,
''parents are going to be looking for those code words,'' Warren said,
''and you are working hard not to let the parents reduce a complicated
narrative to a word or a grade.''

Please send feedback and ideas to Laura Pappano, reachable at chalkboard@globe.com.

This story ran on page B2 of the Boston Globe on 1/21/2001.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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