By Bob Uphues
Officials in Brookfield-LaGrange Park Elementary School District 95 are moving toward replacing its traditional A-F grading system with a "standards-based" report card to give parents a clearer picture of exactly where students are excelling and where they need help.
Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski said he would like the school district to move to the new grade reporting system by the 2014-15 school year, which will give time for officials to explain the value of such a system to parents, train teachers how to use the system, and purchase the technology to implement it.
"We know the challenge is to effectively communicate why a standards-based report card is of more value to a child's academic progress than a regular report card," said Kuzniewski. "Any time you have a shift in educational practice that's not consistent with what parents' experiences in the educational system was, it's difficult."
A standards-based report card still evaluates student achievement, but it does so in a more comprehensive way. Instead of a teacher adding up the number of points a student has earned and dividing them by the total number possible to achieve a letter grade, a teacher on a standards-based report card can evaluate different aspects of a certain subject.
For example, a reading teacher might evaluate a student's vocabulary and language fluency and separately evaluate the student's reading comprehension, ability to analyze material and writing ability.
Instead of a simple A-F letter grade, a student might get a PR for "proficient" or AD for "advanced" or BA for "basic." It also can separate out mastery of material from other factors that often affect grades in a traditional system, such as completing homework, class participation and being prepared for class.
A student can receive a C in a class despite knowing the material if he or she neglects homework or is passive in class. That same grade could be achieved by a student who has not mastered the material as well but participates often and completes every assignment.
"We know A is good and D is bad. But what it doesn't tell us is exactly what did the student do to achieve the A, and secondly, it doesn't tell us, in the instance of when a student is a C, if there are certain things that he did extremely well and others that he did really poorly on, and the average of those things makes a C."
The traditional grading system, said Kuzniewski, "doesn't really paint an accurate picture of how a student is progressing in those subject areas."
A standards-based reporting system, meanwhile, can take those behavioral failings into account but still highlight the student's mastery, or non-mastery, of the material.
"We still need to report that for parents; we just need to disaggregate that out or separate that out from how we're reporting academic progress," Kuzniewski said. "Standards-based report cards allow you to do that."
District 95 school board President James Landahl said a benefit of such a reporting system is that it "keeps kids engaged a lot longer."
Nothing is more discouraging to a child than a D or failing grade. By delving deeper into a student's performance can identify specific areas that need to be addressed.
"We want to make sure the child is encouraged to do better work," said Landahl.
"I think parents appreciate diving in deeper than just the letter grade."
District 95 is starting its march toward adopting a standards-based reporting system, led by Kuzniewski and Cathy Cannon, the district's director of teaching and learning.
Standards-based reporting is not a new concept. It's been around for more than 20 years, but it hasn't been implemented widely. Part of the reason is cost. There is a technological component to changing the reporting system, Kuzniewski said. And then there's simply the issue of comfort.
Parents are used to the traditional system of grading, despite some obvious flaws. One thing Kuzniewski said he's tried to eliminate in District 95 is what he called "questionable grading practices," which can be devastating to the grades of students who are actually mastering concepts.
If a student has four perfect test scores and the fails one test miserably, what is the best way to evaluate that performance? If a child fails to turn in an assignment, why punish them with a zero, which will skew the entire picture? The low grade should be used to inform instruction, said Kuzniewski, not as a punitive measure.
"What is a more accurate representation of how the child conforms to that standard?" asked Kuzniewski. "The zero is the most damning of grades because it's the lowest and has the most significant impact on a grade."
To those who argue that the traditional grading system is what students will encounter in high school and college and, therefore, they ought to be exposed to it in grade school, Kuzniewski argued that isn't the mission of elementary and middle schools.
"It is our job to engage students in a rigorous and challenging curriculum to prepare them for the content when they get to those levels, and a standards-based report card outlines those learning goals and measures student performance against them," said Kuzniewski. "If you do that, when they leave here and they enter the world of high school or college, they will have a base or platform that is solid upon which to build."
In the end, the point of the change is to improve performance of all students.
"Change is always difficult, but if it's managed correctly … I think it will help parents and children in the long run," said Landahl.