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The Parents Yap About Report Cards: Do the standards-based report cards make the grade?

What's in a grade? Would that which we call an "A" by any other name smell just as sweet? Even if it's a 2? On a scale of 1-4??? The Parents yap about the standards-based report cards. Please yap with us!

Paul Simpson
I have one son at Galvin and one at Woodville, so I get to enjoy both flavors on report card day.  When my sixth grader handed his to me, it took me no more than 30 seconds to register my approval.  One column held grades, the second reported effort, and the third spoke to his conduct.  Off to the right sat a column of stock comments like “Pleasure to have in class” and “Very good quality of work”.  After a quick scan I clapped him on the shoulder and gave him an “Atta boy!”  I dropped him off and went to pick up son number two at Woodville.

My second grader forked over his manila envelope, and I removed his Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks standards-based report card, a sheet printed on both sides and folded in thirds.  A letter from the principal accompanied the report card, along with a Rosetta Stone evaluation key and a glossary of terms pertaining to each major subject.  The evaluation key is based on a number system:

  • 4 – Exceeds the standard
  • 3 – Meets the standard (This is the goal for the end of the grade level)
  • 2+ – Approaching the standard
  • 2 – Progressing toward the standard
  • 1 – Not yet meeting the standard

When the school first introduced the standards-based report card, the system simply went from 1-4.  The 2+ was added later, I suspect due to parent displeasure.  The number system grades don’t correlate to the familiar letter grades, yet I understand parents would do it anyway.  So, if your kid got mostly “2” in a four-number system, you might see it as the equivalent of a “D”.  Enter “2+” to the rescue.  Now there are five possible number grades, and you’ve got your middling “C”.  Again, it doesn’t really mean that, but it made it easier for parents to wrap their heads around this new system.  (Aren’t we just splitting hairs with “1”, “2”, and “2+” anyway?  If I decide to drive to Portland, Maine, it doesn’t matter if I’m jumping on 95 in Wakefield, crossing the Whittier Bridge into New Hampshire, or cruising past the Kittery outlets—I’m not in Portland until I get there.)

As a tool for assessing my son’s performance, the standards-based model has its merits.  I think, anyway.  I don’t read every single detail.  There are 57 individual marks on that thing! With all the little print, subheadings, and the need to cross-reference a glossary of terms to understand the contents, I’ll go out on a limb and trust his teacher’s covering everything.  I think this format borders on micromanaging the teacher, but I do see a few clear benefits with it:

  • No need to add my parental two cents to the school performance discussion.  “Will, I see you’ve met the standard for applying correct spelling of high frequency and spelling words (COMPOSITION, Standard English Conventions, Standard 22.2)! That’s great! See if you can improve your use of a variety of forms or genres when writing for different purposes (COMPOSITION, Audience and Purpose, Standard 20.1) over the next term.”
  • Kids can’t compare grades.  I guess they can, but “I got an A in math and you only got a B!” stings a lot more than “You only got a 2+ on SCIENCE/TECHNOLOGY AND ENGINEERING standard E.1 (Recognize that rocks, soil, and living organisms are found on the earth’s surface)?!  I got a 3!”
  • No Facebook bragging about grades in my newsfeed.  Status update: “Soooooo proud of my little smarty pants!  16 3’s, 10 2+’s, and 4 2’s for Term 1!  Way to go!”  Now if I could just do something about all those people who feel the need to tell me how far and how fast they run…
  • Less stress on the kids.  Because I have very little experience with this grading format, there’s no emotional attachment to the numbers.  I’m pretty sure my son will be promoted and achieve all the standards set forth for grade two.  There are so many numbers on the report card it’s hard to get worked up over any individual score in one area.  I’m not passing on any grade-induced anxiety to my son, which is great, because there shouldn’t be any for a 7-year-old.


The standards-based report card is an enigma wrapped in a riddle for most of us still.  It will take time to adjust and come to terms with it.  The most important section as far as I’m concerned is the center panel on the back side: BEHAVIOR.  I’m looking for straight “C”’s (Consistently), I’ll accept an “O” or two (Often), and I expect zero “S”’s (Sometimes) and “R”’s (Rarely).  So far, so good.

I think the teacher conferences provide parents with the most beneficial and important information.  The conferences aren’t very long, but I learn way more in those 10 minutes twice a year than I learn from any kind of report card. 

 

Regina Martine
My children love bringing their report cards home. They are all good students and (so far) have had no major problems in school, so bringing home a report card is usually a happy event. I love getting feedback from my kids’ teachers – but am I really getting any useful information from their report cards? It depends...

My sixth grader’s report card is clear and easy to understand — class, letter grade, effort grade, teacher comments. That’s it. I also have to sign her test papers after each test, so the grades on the report card aren’t really a surprise. She likes to compare grades with her friends and she is proud that her hard work has resulted in some pretty stellar grades. She likes that her teachers think she is a hard worker and a “joy to have in class.” I like that I know exactly where she stands.

My second and fourth graders bring home report cards that are a little more cryptic. Instead of the tried-and-true A-B-C letter grades, we have Standard’s Based Reporting in the elementary schools, a numeric assessment that seems practically meaningless until the final report card of the year. I am not saying that this grading system is completely without merit, but seeing a 2 or a 2+ as a grade—when they know the grading scale is 1-4 — isn’t particularly rewarding to a kid, even though it indicates that they are right where they should be.

On the plus side, I like the fact that this system of grading itemizes exactly what my child is supposed to master by the end of the school year. Rather than just saying Math: 2+, the report card lists each skill that is being taught and scores the student’s mastery of that skill. However, the goal is to have mastered the skill by the end of the year, so the grades of the first and second marking period often show that the child hasn’t mastered that skill yet, resulting in what seems like a lower grade. I know the numeric Standards Based grades are not supposed to be equated with traditional letter grades, but it is hard for a child to understand them in that way. When my fourth grader is disappointed that she “only got a 3” on a project — indicating she is meeting the standard for the end of fourth grade— she feels like she could have done better since the grades “go up to 4.”

I would much prefer the old-fashioned letter grades and more personal comments from the teachers. I want to know about my child’s attitude in class, whether she’s engaged in what’s being taught, and what study habits she can improve on. I don’t think the Standards Based Reporting system captures any of those things, or gives a child much sense of accomplishment. Letter grades may not be perfect, but I don’t think the new system of grading in an improvement.

 

Melissa Schools
I really wish there was a way to combine the “Just gimme the bottom line” quality of the letter grade marking system with the tedious- er, conscientious detail of the standards-based marking system. Well, in my mind, I have combined the two, actually. I found myself whipping open my sons’ report cards and scanning, scanning, scanning, comparing how many 2’s (many) and 3’s (eh, not so very many) there were. I felt like I was objectifying my kids as I thought, “What? Average? Average+?”

Even though I was on the committee of parents who helped clarify wording and concepts during the development stage of standards-based reporting in our school, I still find myself equating it with the letter grade system or the college GPA/4.0 system. I remember that some of my friends got paid a certain amount for A’s and a certain amount for B’s on each report card. That could be a tough call with standards-based reporting. “You’re progressing toward the standard, honey- let’s celebrate!” has a slightly clinical ring to it.

There are pros and cons for each of the grading systems, but I think I’ll throw my lot in with the standards-based report cards over the letter grade ones. I guess I can see the sense behind the decision to switch to a more transparent, somewhat-more-objective means of reporting educational progress of the students. It would appear to eliminate the whole “grading on a curve” nonsense, and it would make it much easier to pinpoint a particular area of struggle for a student.

I do think that standards-based reporting could prove a disservice to truly advanced students, since it basically stops measuring once a student “exceeds the standard” of what is expected by the end of any given grade level. Then again, there are so many levels to what constitutes a given standard in a huge collection of standards expected to have been met by the end of the year, a student of such caliber probably would be whisked away to some private, alternative haven where grades aren’t even given, anyway. Le sigh.

But in the end, the quality of the education will still depend on the teacher way more than the way in which the measure of what is taught is conveyed in a report card. I believe it ends up being another tool for the state to judge and compare one school district or whole state with another, and that smacks of competition and more pressure for the teachers. I can’t imagine even trying to keep up with so many measurements per kid and multiplying it by eighteen to twenty-five students. Lord have mercy!

 

Tasha Schlake Festel
When I was a kid, our elementary school graded us on a scale of O, S, I and U. Outstanding, Satisfactory, Incomplete and Unsatisfactory. Sometimes there would be a "+" or a "-" thrown in there to more finely describe our level of achievement. On the back we had a section that addressed our behavior, separate from academics, where we were given a "check" if we exhibited the behavior. With items like "calls out in class" and "picks nose," the goal was to be check-free. Obviously, I never got any checks, thankyouverymuch.

When we got to junior high, we switched to "real" grades for big kids, the traditional A-F scale. After adjusting to the formality of it all – I mean, it seemed so grown up and harsh compared to the round and friendly Os and Ss I was used to seeing – I embraced it and defined my academic self-worth quarterly with the angular grade of "A." Eventually in high school, our district converted to percentage grades, the theory being that there was no longer any gray area. You knew exactly how well you did in each class. All As were not equal. And now everyone knew it.

The move from A-F to percentages was an easy one. There was an obvious correlation – As were 90-100, Bs 80-89, and so on. What I am still struggling with – three years later – is the move from A-F to the standards-based report cards the Wakefield elementary school kids receive.

I can't wrap my head around a world where a 2 (on a scale of 1-4, where 1 is basically failing and 4 is skipping a grade) is a desirable mark. Well, desirable that is, until the end of the year when a 2 is no longer acceptable and kids should be getting all 3s or else, clearly, they've not learned what they were supposed to learn.

I've heard all of the arguments that there is so much more detail in the new report cards and that this system allows us as parents to really know how our kids are doing, but I don't see it. Sure, there are more criteria upon which they are graded, but the numbers are so... demoralizing. No matter how many times it's been drilled in to me - and more importantly to the kids - there is no scenario in which a 2, the second lowest score possible, feels like a good grade. I understand it, but I still have a hard time selling it.

Like Gina and Paul, I like seeing the details of what they should be learning and not the generic "reading" or "math" line items. But why can't these be combined with a letter grade? Why can't they be graded on where they are now versus where they should be now instead of at the end of the year? Honestly, shouldn't they all be "approaching the standard" if they're even attending school at all?

Much to Paul’s chagrin, I’ll brag here. One of my kids got an awesome report card with all 2s and 2+s. Unfortunately, this was interpreted as "totally adequate." My other kid got all 3s, with a few 2+s and a 4. This was interpreted as "why am I forced to be in this grade if I already know everything." I don't know how to argue with either of those interpretations, even though they're both kinda wrong... but kinda right. They were both great report cards... weren’t they? Huh?

I realize grades aren't really all that important in elementary school. In fact, I find the "behavior" section of the report cards to be much more telling and tangible. While it doesn't highlight the fact that neither of my kids picks his or her nose in class (I hope!), it does highlight that my kids are learning to be respectful members of society who can take direction and behave appropriately. As long as they come out of elementary school knowing their basic math facts and how to read, I guess I'll call K-4th grade successful, regardless of the 2s, 2+s, 3s or elusive 4s they may or may not get.

So, until middle school when we return to a grading scale I understand, I'll tow the line, stressing that 2s are good great, and get my real information from conferences, homework, and the always insightful lunch duty.

 

 

Tiffany Thompson December 20, 2012 at 01:05 PM
We don't get our kids report cards until the parent-teacher conferences. The teacher goes over it with us - almost line by line - which is nice, but not really necessary. I just scan the whole thing. I look for the highest and the lowest. Those are the things I want to discuss. I just need to know "Are they doing well?" Yes? Great. No? What do we need to work on? It's nice to have the report card for their baby books, but other than that, I think they're unnecessary. I get what I need to know from the conferences.
Tasha Schlake Festel December 20, 2012 at 07:33 PM
Thanks for your input, Tiffany. You're right - they're unnecessary. I need to remind myself of that! If they're doing their homework, making friends, and the teacher says all is well, that should be enough. I need to let go of the need to measure!
Jeff Crump December 20, 2012 at 09:13 PM
The new report cards at the elementary level are worse than useless -- they actually can make you believe your student is learning (oh, sorry, "progressing") when in fact they come into the Galvin woefully unprepared. And you're blindsided by that. Oh, it's great at making sure no one's feelings are hurt. You just can't use it to figure out if your kid is actually learning anything. Sure, we talk with the teachers all the time. But nothing motivates better than when the kid sees it in writing. I don't give a damn if my kid is "progressing to a standard". Rather, I need to know *where* he is relative to that standard. You know, so I can push him harder in areas where he might need work. Seems to me that old-fashioned grades worked pretty well for this purpose.
Charlie Festel December 20, 2012 at 10:19 PM
"I don't give a damn if my kid is "progressing to a standard"." I agree completely, Jeff. And the self-motivational aspect of traditional grades can't be overemphasized. Kids will fight to get better grades (whether "better" for them is Cs, Bs, or As) and they will be proud of their accomplishments if they do it. With the current grading, a teacher could give 2s (or the stupid 2+) until the end of the year. And then 3s and the occasional 4! Yay? How is that supposed to drive a kid to excel? Don't you think the brighter kids who are already bored by our lowest-common-denominator schools would just shut down? What's the point? Should grades be the only incentive that helps drive kids toward achievement? Of course not. But why take away a tried and true measure?
Melissa Schools December 21, 2012 at 07:17 PM
Well, now, Jeff & Charlie, you've made great points! I may have to switch my vote...

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