Report card debate stirs struggle as parents learn about new school standards

Posted: Monday, February 14, 2000

The Juneau School District is designing a new report card to be used next school year in the elementary grades. Some parents are concerned it doesn't encourage capable students, while others think the current grading system discourages struggling students.

The report card issue has brought out the public's struggle to understand the new standards movement, which requires parents to think differently about education.

The goal is to judge students against the standards, not against each other.

The school district tried a pilot report card in some elementary classes last school year, tied to standards in reading, writing and math.

But the school board abruptly canceled it this school year because some parents said they couldn't understand the new system and some teachers said it was time-consuming.

Other parents said the pilot report cards told them more about their children's growth and whether they were meeting the standards. And some teachers said it forced them to teach to the standards.

It's all part of a movement larger than Juneau's school district.

The state will start testing students in grades three, six and eight this year on state standards in reading, writing and math. Those tests are intended to spur schools to keep up, so students will be able to pass a new high school graduating exam.

Last week, the school board's Program Evaluation Committee began asking parents and teachers what they want in a report card for the school district's roughly 2,500 elementary students.

``I'm not completely sold on standards, but we have them,'' said parent Betsy Brenneman at a meeting at Harborview Elementary last week. ``I need to know (her son's) progress against the core content and standards.''

Parents also said they need to know whether their children have shown growth, even if they aren't meeting the standards yet. If the report cards don't show growth, a student who didn't meet the standard would get only a poor grade, said teacher Debbie Fagnant.

Parents said they want consistency in grading and an easy-to-understand report card. Confusion was a sticking point last school year.

The pilot program measured students' effort and work habits, individual growth, and progress toward the core standards.

It replaced letter grades, for fourth- and fifth-graders, with indications of whether there's concern about the student's progress, or whether the student was in progress, meeting expectations or exceeding expectations.

For grades one through three, the pilot program replaced indications of whether the work was unsatisfactory, satisfactory or outstanding.

At school meetings last week there wasn't a lot of discussion of A's, B's and C's vs. ``meet or exceed'' grades. But there was a lot of confusion about what ``meet'' means, and questions about whether it discourages excellence.

Parents said if there's a big gap between meeting and exceeding the standards, students won't try to do better on their assignments. One man spoke of an ``extremely frustrated'' fifth-grade girl who got 100s on her assignments but only a ``meets expectations'' grade on the report card.

Some teachers in the pilot wouldn't give the highest grade because they said there's always more to learn, or they treated it as a grade for extra-credit work, parents said. Fagnant, a Harborview teacher, said students couldn't exceed the standards because they weren't taught them beyond their grade level.

If ``exceed'' grades are rarely used, students can't work to get them, said Glacier Valley parent Veronica Whitehead. ``That makes a child say, `Gosh, am I ever going to get to the top?'''

Some people interpret ``meets expectations'' as a mark of mediocrity, because the core standards don't contain everything a student should know.

``What some people miss is the core is a minimal threshold level to be met,'' said school board member Alan Schorr at a meeting at Riverbend Elementary. ``You can easily meet the core, but you could get a B, C or D in math or science.''

But some parents and teachers said the traditional letter grades compared students to each other, not to what they should know. Students could get good grades because they did much better than their peers, yet not have mastered the material.

``Success is not just where you come up on a bell curve,'' said Gastineau parent Virginia Stonkus.

She thinks it's letter grades that can discourage students. There may be negative connotations for C's, because it means average, she said. ``There was a point in our lives when you were ready to eat bugs rather than go home and tell your father you got a C.''

But telling children they're showing progress would be a positive reinforcement, Stonkus said. The pilot program was more flexible in addressing a broader range of successes than were letter grades, she said.

Gastineau parent Katie Bausler, who is concerned the pilot program discouraged capable students from trying harder, said letter grades don't have to be tied to a bell curve.

``It seems to me there is a way to make the expectations very clear and have a system of standards to be met to get a certain grade,'' Bausler said in an interview.

A group of teachers, school board members and district administrators, meeting this winter, has suggested that a new report card should do what the pilot did. But the group also thought report cards for fourth- and fifth-graders should have some sort of grades for math, English, history and science.

The discussion will continue at public meetings scheduled for Auke Bay Elementary at 5:30 p.m. Feb. 16 and at Mendenhall River Community School at 7 p.m. Feb. 28. The school district will accept written comments through March 15.

The school district will then draft a report card, which will be sent to school site councils to gather more comments, which are due by May 15.

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