Parents Push for Report Cards That Don't Require a User's Manual


Peggy Johnsen has always been eager to get her six children's report cards. But the ones her youngest child is bringing home leave her scratching her head.

When her oldest son attended Hammond Elementary School in Howard County, Md., the goal for hard-working students was to earn 1's on a grading scale of 1 to 4. The subject areas were limited to reading, writing, and math.

Now, Rachel, a kindergartner at the same school, strives for X's showing that she has "independently" mastered skills in nine subjects. A slash indicates that a skill can be done "with assistance." Lots of dots - "not apparent at this time" - are to be avoided. In reading and writing, the goal is to be "fluent" rather than "emergent" or "early."

None of this makes much sense to Mrs. Johnsen - or to many other parents, who complain that their children's new report cards are too complicated and filled with jargon.

As a result, in Howard County and hundreds of other school districts across the nation, parents are successfully demanding that administrators return to simpler and clearer evaluations.

When the Rialto, Calif., school district introduced a complicated new report card several years ago, for example, confused parents vented their frustrations on a local talk-radio program. The district ended up simplifying the report cards and indicating whether students were working at grade level.

In Elmhurst, Ill., parents were outraged when the school district dropped letter grades, prompting administrators to add a grid showing how children are doing compared with other students. In Cherry Creek, Colo., the Polton Community School added a box to show each student's standing in the class. And in Howard County, the dot-and-slash system will be replaced next year with a letter code indicating the level of progress on specific skills.

Most such changes are confined to elementary schools. Few middle schools or high schools are willing to tamper with the traditional letter-grade system since colleges rely heavily on transcripts for admissions decisions.

A philosophical shift in elementary education has caused educators to reject a rigid grading system and embrace the idea that primary-age children develop at different rates. Rather than handing out letter grades or numbers in basic subjects, the new systems focus on a continuum of skills to be mastered over time.

"We're looking more at emerging skills and not so much how the student compares to some other child," says Patti Caplan, spokesperson for the Howard County Public Schools.

In some school districts, checklist-style report cards run on for pages. Meetings are held to explain the reports, and parents receive complex handbooks to help them decipher how their students are performing.

Despite efforts to bring them on board, many parents give the newfangled report cards an "F." The evaluations leave them uncertain about how their child is really doing in school.

Johnsen understands the motivation to avoid labeling children too early and to take into account differing stages of development. But she doesn't find it helpful to be told her children are simply early or late in developing certain skills.

"It's hard to get a feel for whether it's something the child has any control over," she says. "There's not a clear-cut way of knowing where they are."

"Some of these report cards fudge the question of how students are really doing," says Grant Wiggins, president of the Center on Learning, Assessment, and School Structure in Princeton, N.J., and a consultant to schools making report-card changes. "They give you descriptors and say the student is 'working to make progress.' But parents ask: 'Compared to what?' "

In Howard County, in addition to reporting on specific skills, teachers will indicate the level of effort demonstrated in each subject area. Most important for many parents is the addition of an "instructional code" for reading and math that tells whether their child is working "above grade level," "on grade level," or "working toward grade level."

"The new card is much more user-friendly," Ms. Caplan says.

"This is about learning to satisfy your clients," Mr. Wiggins says. Parents rebel when schools make report cards too vague or load them down with educational jargon and paragraphs of explanatory fine print. While teachers understand how a student is doing in comparison to the entire class, parents are dependent on the report card to provide that information, he notes.

To read that your child is " 'in the process of becoming an independent reader' is nice," Wiggins says. "But is the teacher saying that about two-thirds of the class or about nobody else?"

The tension arises from differing goals. "Educators want to get away from comparison and parents want to hold onto it," Wiggins says. "The trick is not to make an insidious comparison. You compare students not against each other arbitrarily but you compare their performances against standards."

The worst changes are those designed simply to make everybody feel good, Wiggins says. "In some places, euphemisms like: 'Student is in progress' is a way of saying that this student's work is not very good."

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