Did your grandparents give you a dollar for every A on your report card? Did you ever receive a dreaded F? For a growing number of today’s elementary school students, the days of celebrating or dreading letter grades are over. As schools and educators across the country focus on teaching content based on core standards, student report cards have changed to reflect this. Elementary schools are using standards-based report cards that align with their standards-based teaching. As a result, parents are getting more information about their students’ achievement.
What are standards-based report cards?
On traditional report cards, students receive one grade for reading, one for math, one for science, and so on. A standards-based report card lists the most important skills students should learn in each subject at a particular grade level.
Instead of letter grades, students receive a number that shows how well they have mastered the skills. The numbers represent whether students meet, exceed, or approach each standard. In Freehold Township we use the following key:
How does the standards-based report card help parents?
The marks on a standards-based report card are different from traditional letter grades. Letter grades are often calculated by combining how well the student met his particular teacher’s expectations, how he performed on assignments and tests, and how much effort the teacher believes he put in. Letter grades do not tell parents which skills their children have mastered or whether they are working at grade level. Because one fourth-grade teacher might be reviewing basic multiplication facts while another might be teaching multiplication of two- or three-digit numbers, an A in these classes would mean very different things. The parent of a child in one of these classes would not know if their child were learning what they should be to meet the state standards. Standards-based report cards will provide more consistency between teachers than traditional report cards because all students are evaluated on the same grade-level skills. Parents can see exactly which skills and knowledge their child has acquired.
Why are some districts are switching?
Diane Mead, a teacher on special assignment in the Beverly Hills Unified School District in California, believes students are the biggest winners when standards-based report cards are used. These report cards give students specific information about how they’re doing and pinpoint where they need to improve.
This approach can carry over to classroom assignments, too, as the report card influences the way teachers assess student learning throughout the year. In the first two years of using a standards-based report card in Beverly Hills, teachers worked together to describe clearly what student work that meets the standards looks like. Teachers share these expectations with students, often posting them on the classroom wall. Now when students get an assignment they know exactly what they have to do to be proficient or advanced. That’s a big change from the way assignments used to be given and graded. “If you get a 90 percent, it doesn’t tell you much about where to go from there,” says Mead. Because concrete skills and knowledge are listed on the report card, it is one way to help monitor whether all students are being exposed to the same curriculum and learning the skills they should learn in each grade. The new report cards also make the standards very clear to parents, Liddell says. “Parents should know exactly what their students should be able to do.”
Discouraging or encouraging?
One of the biggest adjustments for students and parents is that many standards-based report cards focus on end-of-the-year goals. This means that in the first or second grading period, instead of getting A’s for trying hard and doing well on tests, a high-achieving student might have several marks indicating that they are not yet proficient in some skills. Although this is normal — most students will not meet all of the year’s goals in the first quarter — it can be disconcerting to parents and kids used to seeing all A’s or B’s. Another big change for students is understanding the concept of “advanced” or “exceeding standards.” Advanced is not necessarily the equivalent of an A on a traditional report card. For example, if a fifth-grader received A’s on every math test during the semester, she would probably receive an A on a traditional report card. If those math tests measured only the concepts fifth graders are expected to master, those A’s would be the equivalent of “proficient” on a standards-based report card; the student is doing what he should be doing, but not necessarily more. Al Friedenberg, former principal of Grant Elementary in Santa Monica, California, noted that this means teachers need to provide opportunities for students to show they can exceed what is expected and be truly advanced. Standards-based report cards can encourage teachers to make sure their lessons offer students chances to go beyond “grade level.” Mead said one analogy her district uses to explain this difference to parents is: “You climb up the hill to be proficient, but you have to fly off to be exemplary.” Standards-based report cards provide the added benefit of keeping teachers and parents focused on student learning goals from the very beginning of the year. Friedenberg said this gives his students a chance to get help when it’s most needed, sooner rather than later.
Glitches and fixes
As with the implementation of any new program, students and parents should expect some glitches and fine-tuning as the new report cards are established. Both Mead and Friedenberg noted that the first few years with their standards-based report cards were challenging for teachers as they dealt with technical difficulties at the same time that they were working to align their teaching and assessment with the new report cards. Patience and understanding from parents and students go a long way when schools are working out bugs in a new program.
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