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'Standards-based growth report' may replace grades

The standard student report card -- with traditional grades of A, B and C -- may soon be a thing of the past in Buffalo.

In its place, a school district committee proposes a five-page "standards-based growth report" that would include far more detailed and sophisticated information.

Without using actual grades, it would track student progress in 54 academic categories in seven subject areas. If the new system is adopted, Buffalo will join a growing number of districts across the state that have made similar dramatic changes.

Advocates say the new reports would end rampant grade inflation, eliminate wide disparities in grading from teacher to teacher and school to school and give parents a true picture of how their children are matching up to state learning standards.

"Right now, what we receive as a report card tells us absolutely nothing," said the Rev. Kinzer Pointer, the Ferry District Board of Education member. "We've got to begin to have conversations with parents that really matter."

Others feel the proposed new reports are so detailed that parents won't understand them.

"I still want to have a grade," said Catherine Collins, an at-large Board of Education member. "Parents are going to be looking for that A and B. That's our mind-set. Everyone has to know at some point if they've mastered the whole subject."

Based on a draft copy of a third-grade report, pupils would be measured on 19 English language arts standards alone. Those include whether a pupil:

"Identifies meaning by analyzing word structure."

"Decodes unfamiliar words."

"Uses details from text to make predictions, draw conclusions and support interpretations."

The new report cards would first be used in kindergarten through sixth grade, then expanded in modified form to city high schools. The reports would be different for each grade, reflecting the state's learning standards.

Current plans are to introduce the report cards at eight or nine elementary schools next year as a pilot project and to use them for all K-6 students in the 2008-09 school year.

The third-grade document was introduced at a recent Board of Education committee meeting, but district officials stressed that it is still a draft copy and that they will seek broad input before implementing the new system.

By developing standards-based report cards, Buffalo is joining a growing number of school districts both locally and across the state, said Margaret Jones-Carey, associate superintendent for instruction at Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Education Services.

She said similar systems are already in use in the Frontier, West Seneca, City of Tonawanda, Niagara-Wheatfield and Silver Creek school districts. In addition, Sweet Home and Grand Island are considering them.

The grading structure proposed in Buffalo is more detailed than most of the others, but the opportunities it presents outweigh the challenges, Jones-Carey said.

"It correlates much better with state standards and allows parents to better understand where their child falls on the continuum," she said. "It's so helpful once you understand what you're looking at."

Members of the committee drafting the student reports readily acknowledge that they are a dramatic break from tradition and that a major effort will be required to acclimate teachers and parents. But they say the change is crucial and necessary.

"This new model brings us from the minor leagues to the major leagues," said Michael J. O'Brien, principal of Pfc. Williams J. Grabiarz School of Excellence and a member of the report card committee. "Now they would reflect what the standards really mean."

But the proposed student report is too complex for many parents to understand, said Jan Peters, a former Board of Education member.

"Your staff is not going to be able to explain it to anyone's satisfaction," she said. "I don't see this as being well-received by most parents."

The report also could be demoralizing, Peters said, since it will serve as a stark reminder that a majority of city students are performing below grade level in several academic areas.

In each of the 54 categories, third-graders would be graded at performance levels 1, 2, 3 or 4, which correspond to state standards.

Level 1 means a student is far below grade level, and Level 2 indicates he is slightly below grade level. Level 3 reflects work that is at or above grade level, and Level 4 means a student is well above grade level.

Arrows will show, in every category, whether a student improved, lost ground or stayed the same since the previous report.

Effort, attendance, classroom participation and other subjective factors will be addressed separately on the reports but will no longer be factored into a pupil's formal grades, said Catherine Battaglia, a community superintendent and chairwoman of the report card committee.

"It doesn't say: 'Very good job,' " Battaglia said. "It's all about the skills. It's neutral. It doesn't praise or blame. It says: 'This is what is.' "

Now, Battaglia said, many students receive grades of A or B in English language arts even though their reading skills are far below grade level.

"This gives you more information than an arbitrary 85 or 90," said board President Florence Johnson. "I like that."

O'Brien said many teachers now inflate grades to reward students for turning in homework, for effort or for being well-behaved in class.

"Teachers are using grades for what grades aren't meant to be used for -- managing kids," he said.

The proposal received a large measure of support among Board of Education members, but also a considerable degree of skepticism.

"You've going to have a huge learning curve for everybody," said Donald Van Every, the North District board member. "How do you get parents to adapt to it?"


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