It's too early for even a pass-fail grade, but a report card reform idea by a Buffalo School District committee deserves serious consideration. The committee wants to change grading to a five-page standards-based growth report instead of the traditional letter grades.
In third-grade, for example, the proposal involves tracking student progress in 54 academic categories in seven subject areas. Proponents hope it could put an end to grade inflation and the kind of "social promotion" that moves pupils out of one level and into the next whether they're ready or not. An even better reason cited by supporters is the chance to provide parents a better understanding of exactly what their student has learned, and how well he or she is learning.
District officials offer assurances that they are taking pains in wording student reviews, and are well aware draft comments contain language, used routinely by education professionals, that does not transfer well to the real world. For example, the English Language Arts category under comprehension reads: "Organizes and categorizes information using knowledge of text structure (e.g., cause and effect, fact and opinion . . . )."
Send that home with a kid, and principals and teachers can expect their phones to ring. It would be even worse if the phones didn't ring at all -- a sign that parents simply dismissed lengthy and incomprehensible reports.
That, in fact, is the main argument of opponents of the standard-based evaluations: that parents wouldn't understand them, and expect to see an A, B or C. It is indeed a challenge to make this system user-friendly and meaningful for parents. There may be legitimate concern that Buffalo school officials haven't yet done everything to meet that challenge, but school officials have indicated a willingness to involve and educate teachers and parents.
There are methods under discussion. Arrows indicating, in every category, whether a student has improved, lost ground or stayed the same since the previous report could help. Even color coding can be helpful. Putting comments in green, yellow and red so that parents can get a better sense of where their child stands academically is a practical step toward clarifying change this comprehensive. A summary on the front page could be important, helping parents to get a quick read.
The change also could work well with requirements in the federal "No Child Left Behind" Act that reports indicate whether children are meeting state standards, aligning that requirement under the law with the tradition of providing report cards. Some school systems provide traditional report cards and separately mail to parents a report on whether their child met standards. What this proposal promises to do is to synthesize that information and give parents one report -- which could, in turn, increase parental involvement with their children's education.
Standards-based report cards are becoming more common in this area, across the state and nationally for kindergarten through eighth grade (high-school level changes still need addressing by states because of the impact on the college application process, which needs a common reference point). Ross Wiener, a principal partner at the Education Trust in Washington, D.C., said students can't keep getting As and Bs only to discover they're not meeting standards -- news that always comes too late.
Buffalo could introduce the report cards at eight or nine elementary schools next year, and use them for all kindergarten through sixth-grade pupils in the 2008-09 school year. If the forms can be made clear and readable, the measure deserves a close look.