By Sherry Posnick-Goodwin
Teresa Basin, a Murrieta Teachers Association member and second-grade teacher at Rail Ranch Elementary School.
When the West Contra Costa Unified School District adopted standards-based grades for elementary schools, report cards became more confusing for teachers, students and parents, says Gig Jenkins, a second-grade teacher at Grant Elementary School in Richmond.
Numbers replaced letter grades, with 1 showing that a student needs improvement; 2 showing the student approaching the standards; 3 showing the student meeting benchmarks; and 4 showing that the student is advanced. Instead of being graded overall on subjects, students are graded on many standards within core subjects.
Jenkins was part of a committee that helped create the report cards measuring student progress toward meeting state standards. With so many standards, not all were included.
“We used our district ‘power standards,’” recalls Jenkins, a member of the United Teachers of Richmond. “Our committee looked at report cards from other districts with standards-based report cards and created our own.”
The report cards are confusing and are not particularly parent-friendly, says Jenkins. “Many people, including myself, believe the standards-based language of the report cards is geared more toward guiding teachers than informing parents.”
Parents are baffled by such things as a math standard that evaluates students on their ability “to use the commutative and associative rules to simplify mental calculations,” or a language-arts standard that determines whether students “decode phonetic patterns — plurals and diphthongs.”
“When they first came out, I basically would spend all my time in parent-teacher conferences explaining what this stuff means,” says Jenkins. “Now many parents and students are just looking for numbers and not looking at standards individually. If students get mostly 2’s and 3’s, they know they are doing okay.” Report cards, she adds, need to be modified so that they are easier to understand and less time-consuming for teachers to fill out. It takes hours to complete the legal-sized report cards.
Teresa Basin, a second-grade teacher at Rail Ranch Elementary School in Murrieta, also finds standards-based report cards to be extremely time-consuming. A recent redesign of her district’s report cards has helped. But report cards are still time-intensive for teachers to fill out, with 18 standards for math and 22 standards for English.
“The new report cards are hopefully more user-friendly for parents,” says Basin, a member of the Murrieta Teachers Association. “We’ll find out how user-friendly they are in a few weeks when we have parent-teacher conferences.”
The school’s grading rubric was changed from 1-4 to 1-5, with a new category to indicate that students are advanced. The numbers now correlate with standardized test scores, with 1 standing for “far below basic”; 2 for “below basic”; 3 for “basic”; 4 for “proficient”; and 5 for “advanced.”
Students are graded separately on “effort” in every subject, so they can be acknowledged for trying to master the material. “You might have a child who is a 2 — or below basic — in reading, but his effort is excellent,” explains Basin. “He tries his best every day, does his homework and does his reading logs. That’s different than a child who needs improvement but is not putting any effort out. I think that kids try harder when they are graded on effort and held accountable for their learning.”
To make standards-based report cards easier for parents to understand, members of the La Cañada Teachers Association give the very first report card “face to face” during conferences, so they can explain exactly how children are evaluated and what the standards mean.
Susan Bornhurst, a first-grade teacher at La Cañada Elementary, believes that flaws with the state standards also are reflected in standards-based report cards, which she describes as “a mile wide and an inch deep.”
“Some of the standards on report cards we cover too broadly; some are too vague; some are broken down too much; and others are left out completely,” she says. “I don’t really like it and think we need to look at standards-based report cards more carefully.”
When schools go to standards-based report cards that mirror testing results, it can be more difficult for students to raise their grades through traditional avenues such as extra credit, homework and class participation. Parents may be mystified as to how their child compares with his or her classmates. While standards-based grades are increasing in elementary schools, high schools don’t use them, since college acceptance is usually based on a student’s grade point average.
A grading system without D’s
High schools in Temecula got rid of D’s about a decade ago, and have A, B, C and F grades only. The decision was made by the school board without any teacher input, says Larry Thompson, a member of the Temecula Valley Educators Association. And the reasoning behind the decision, says the English teacher, was extremely flawed.
“The school board said, ‘By God, we’re going to raise the bar and the students will work harder and scores will go up,’” he recalls. “They thought everybody would beat a path to our door because we set a new standard. But nothing like that happened.”
What did happen was an exodus of some students before graduation. “We’ve had an explosion in our alternative education programs,” says Thompson. “I think much of it can be laid directly at the doorstep of the no-D policy.”
The district is now considering bringing back the D and is asking for teacher input this time. Thompson serves as a member of the “D Committee.” Students, for the most part, would welcome back the D with open arms.
“I’m in favor of bringing back the D,” says 12th-grader Karissa Simmons. “We have to face the fact that not all students are going to college. Some are struggling with high school, and some will go to a vocational school or into the workforce. Some students I know have quit school over this.”
Thompson says that some students have tried harder to avoid failing, but the policy mostly caused grade inflation, with a C becoming the new D. “There was no data that I can see indicating that D students magically became C students.”
Grade inflation also occurred when a middle school in Beaumont eliminated D’s, says Jenn Latzke, now an English teacher at Beaumont High School.
“It became almost like pass/fail,” says Latzke, a BTA member. “I often felt conflicted when grading. I felt that students were not doing well enough to be given a C and not doing poor enough to be given an F, so I had difficulty deciding which grade to give them based on their work. I wound up adjusting the grading scale, so that the lowest C compensated for having no D’s. Many of the kids didn’t try as hard because they were doing D work and still getting a C in the class.”
Nearby Murrieta is presently considering a “no-D” policy, and science teacher John Grissom has mixed feelings about whether it should be implemented. “Lately businesses have been saying that some high school graduates are not a workable product for them. Businesses say, ‘Yes, they got their diploma, but it’s deceptive, because they skated through with a 1.9 GPA.’ But on the other hand, if you have 25 percent of students not getting diplomas, you will flood adult education programs and won’t have enough people to serve them.”
Intervention: help or hindrance?
The Rocklin Unified School District eliminated both D’s and F’s years ago and went to a system of A, B, C and “No Credit.” “Interventions” were put into place to help students pass, including more time in study hall and the opportunity to retake tests and rewrite papers.
“Some kids try harder and some give up easier,” says Whitney High School science teacher Rachel Kanowsky. “Overall, more students try harder. It’s difficult for teachers in many ways because it’s more work and sometimes we stick around after school. But I feel strongly that it’s helpful to kids.”
When students do poorly on a test and can’t change what happened, they may feel defeated, says Kanowsky, a Rocklin Teachers Professional Association member. “But when they make it up and pass, they get a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. They have built up their confidence in their problem-solving skills. Teachers love it when students finally ‘get it’ and feel that sense of gratification.”
“It’s helped me a lot,” says Ryan Harper, a sophomore at Whitney High School. “I have problems sometimes with math and science. Every time I need an intervention, I can go and get one during the first 15 minutes of lunch or get a pass for an intervention. When students know they can get their grades up, they become a little more motivated.”
Students are motivated to do their best the first time taking a test, adds Harper, because the best they can get on a retake is 70 percent, which is barely passing. “I try to get a good grade the first time. If I don’t, I don’t become totally distraught since I can get the help I need before taking it again.”
An ABC News report raised the question of whether eliminating failing grades — a trend nationwide — might be “coddling” students. Some education experts say it reflects a trend to “protect” children from the harsh reality that they have failed, such as when children receive trophies for “participation” in competitions they lost. Another question is whether eliminating failing grades adequately prepares students for college or life.
Several professors at Sierra College, a community college in Rocklin, were unaware of the “no-D” policy at the local high schools and said they now understand why some of their students expect extra chances.
“Learning this produced an ‘aha!’ moment for me,” says history professor Lynn Medeiros, a member of the Sierra College Faculty Association (SCFA). “Last semester I had a student say, ‘I missed these questions; when can I retake the midterm?’ I said there was no retaking midterms. She asked if she could just retake the questions she missed and I said no.”
Medeiros says students who have asked to retake tests and rewrite papers have told her they should be entitled to do so as part of the “learning process.” But college, she says, has stricter standards.
“It’s always a double-edged sword when it comes to helping students who are struggling with something and facilitating a process to test whether they know it or not,” says Jay Hester, also a history professor at the college and
SCFA member. “If you reach a point where you have a system that allows them another method of getting a good grade other than being tested on the information and knowing the information, you have a problem.”
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