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New grading system seeks to improve schooling by the numbers

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Frank Schultz
August 27, 2012

— Jimmy will no longer get an "A" in reading. He might get a 3. Or a 4.

A-B-C-D-F is out.

4-3-2-1 is in for elementary school report cards in the Janesville School District.

The grades are the most obvious change, but there's a lot more to it, said officials who expressed optimism for a new system they say could boost student learning and test scores.

At the same time, officials know that it will take time for parents and teachers to accept the changes.

An "A," by the way, is not the same as a 4. And a 1 is not exactly a "D." More on that later.

A card with more

A draft of the third-grade report card provided to The Gazette takes up two sheets of paper. It displays 72 judgments that teachers must make about each student.

A third-grade English teacher, for example, must enter eight grades for different aspects of reading, plus an overall grade. The eight categories are:

-- "Understands and uses content-specific vocabulary."

-- "Determines meaning of text across genres."

-- "Distinguishes own point of view from the narrator, a character or the author."

-- "Reads and comprehends a variety of texts at grade level."

-- "Knows and applies grade-level phonics and word analysis skills in decoding words."

-- "Reads grade-level text with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension."

Compare that to reading in last year's third-grade report card:

-- "Word Study"

-- "Comprehension"

-- "Application of reading strategies"

-- "Independent reading"

-- "Work completion."

Last year's report card also included separate grades for spelling and handwriting. Those grading categories have disappeared.

Parent focus

If parents have difficulty understanding the new report card's language, that's what conferences are for, said Kim Ehrhardt, the district's director of curriculum.

Teachers and parents will meet on the first day of school, at the end of October and in February.

The remodeled report cards will help teachers focus on what they need to teach, and they should help parents better understand how they can help their children succeed, Ehrhardt said.

The grading categories come from the standards the state has adopted for its annual tests, so focusing on those standards is expected to improve test scores.

"If you have mastery of these standards we've put on the report card, you're going to do well," Ehrhardt said.

"It's not about, did you do your homework? It's more about, did you understand?" said Amy Sheridan, district assessment coordinator.

Learning standards

The report card is not just something that comes at the end, Sheridan said.

"It engages students in the process of learning because right away, up front, you say, 'Here's what you're going to learn,' and, 'Here's how we'll know if you learned it.' So kids are involved in it. They know every step of the way where they're at," Sheridan said.

The English and math standards come from the "Common Core Standards," a series of learning targets being promoted nationally as a way of improving American students' academic performance.

Common Core Standards for other subject areas still are being developed, Ehrhardt said.

The standards are said to be more rigorous but less wide-ranging than in the past. So the topics students face will be fewer, but they will learn what is truly important for them to know, Ehrhardt said.

"This is about greater attention to mastery rather than rushing through the curriculum," Ehrhardt said.

Ehrhardt said that in the past, "we were teaching too much stuff, and what we lost by teaching too much stuff is not enough mastery."

Why a 3?

The report cards are meant to give parents "meaningful feedback" on how their children are progressing towards mastery, so parents can be "meaningful partners."

"They're the primary educator. The parent always is," Ehrhardt said.

Which brings us back to the 4-3-2-1 grading system.

Explaining the new grades to parents is going to be "the trickiest part," said Sheridan, who already is anticipating the question: "What was so bad with A-B-C-D?"

The easy answer is that the state already requires schools to report grades in 4-3-2-1. It's not that A-B-C-D was bad, but this is better, Sheridan said.

Consider a student who passes all her first-trimester tests with flying colors. That would earn her a 3 because she has demonstrated she knows everything she needs to know in that subject, Ehrhardt said.

In the past, the same student might have gotten an "A." It might have been an "easy A" because she didn't have to work very hard to get it. That's one problem the new system tries to fix.

Students who get 3s should be given more challenging work that helps them understand the material at a deeper level, Ehrhardt said.

If the students succeed with the harder material, that could merit 4s by year's end.

"They shouldn't be experiencing curriculum that in essence they've already mastered. We should challenge them," Ehrhardt said.

The new system answers the criticism—sometimes correct—that school is boring, Ehrhardt said.

"We want to stretch them and challenge them. There will be some people who won't like that initially, but I really thinks it's our ethical responsibility," Ehrhardt said.

Lower grades

Students who get a 1 or a 2 will know where they need to improve. So will their parents and their teachers.

"A 1 would definitely be, you're far away from the target, and we need to do something better and different with that student," Sheridan said.

The system is geared to move students to a higher proficiency level, no matter where they're at, rather than simply awarding an A, B, C or D, Ehrhardt said.

Ehrhardt has heard teachers complain that this sounds like just one more fad in an endless series of educational changes that enter with a bang and then fade away.

This won't go away because the national drive to improve America's global standing and hold schools accountable won't go away, Ehrhardt said.

Number grades actually went into use last year, but the rest of the report card is new this year, officials said.

Fewer 4s anticipated

This year's report cards probably will contain more 3s than last year as teachers put the new system into practice, Ehrhardt said.

If a student is struggling, teachers must respond to the need. Programs already are in place to meet those needs, notably one called Response to Intervention. After-school programs and summer school also will be tasked with moving students forward.

Officials still are working on how schools will handle students whose disabilities hold them back.

The special ed department is working on that question, Ehrhardt said, but even a student with a disability needs to show growth during the year, perhaps moving from a 1 to a 2 over the course of a year.

"We believe all kids can learn, but not on the same day or in the same way," Ehrhardt said.



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