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What Will Your School's
Next Report Card Look Like?

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Report cards are yet another area of education affected by the standards movement. With more things to teach, assess, and track, teachers need more precise ways of assessing students than A to F. Included: Tips for setting up more detailed grading systems.

Not long ago, filling out report cards was as easy as A, B, C.

Over the past several years, though, a report card revolution has been gaining momentum in the U.S., started by state standards, and accelerated by the testing and accountability provisions of the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

Districts and schools are revamping report cards to better reflect what students are learning and supposed to be learning; at the same time, districts are striving to make report cards more meaningful for parents.

"It's a natural evolution, as we change the way students are learning in class," Lynn Steinberg, a spokeswoman for the Seattle (Washington) Public Schools told Education World. "We wanted to bring the report cards in line with our academic standards."

CONCERN FOR CONSISTENCY

"The biggest change in Montgomery County's report cards will be that factors such as student behavior, attitude, attendance, and participation will not be included in the final grade. 'Factoring in these areas can have the function of inflating grades and hiding needs.'"

-- Betsy Brown, district director of pre-K-12 curriculum development

Increasingly, districts were finding that what they were teaching was changing, but how they were grading students remained unchanged, and in some cases, was not that meaningful to teachers or parents.

"As the district developed academic standards, it became clear we needed to align the standards with the report cards," said Peter Robertson, chief information officer for the Cleveland Municipal School District, which is in the third year of a four-year phase-in of new report cards. This year students through ninth grade will get the new report cards. "We rolled out the standards two years before the report cards came out. Now there is a crying demand to assess those standards. The new report cards also are an opportunity to develop better communication with all the parents."

On the older version of report cards, teachers just provided a grade for each subject. "We kept the grade, but now also include course outcome indicators [on the new ones], to give parents a sense of the progress students are making in a particular area," Robertson told Education World. The grades are on the outside of the report cards and comments on the inside.

Students are graded on a scale of 1 to 4; the scale measures how well students are meeting state standards. A grade of 1 means a student attempts the standard, and 4 means a student exceeds the standard.

A desire for consistency also spurred the Montgomery County (Maryland) Public Schools to start revamping its grading system and report cards three years ago.

"We had inconsistent grading across the district," said Betsy Brown, the district's director of pre-K-12 curriculum development. "We were seeking consistency across the district and grading congruent with state and district curriculum standards."

The biggest change in the report cards will be that factors such as student behavior, attitude, attendance, and participation will not be included in the final grade.

"Factoring in these areas can have the function of inflating grades and hiding needs," Brown said. "If the grade carries academic merit, it tells parents how their children are doing, based on the standards. We want to know when a child needs acceleration or intervention. The system becomes a littler cleaner and neater. We don't want them to get A, B, or C [in class] and then fail a high-stakes test.

"The intent was not to curb grade inflation, but as we implement it [a new grading system], we realize that could happen."

Performance by students in first through fifth grades will be measured against grade-level expectations, and middle and high school students evaluated based on how they meet course expectations.

"This is a big shift," Brown added. "We realize the implications for students above or below grade level, or those who are disabled, or those who have limited English proficiency, or are highly motivated. We are trying to provide parents and the system with honest, meaningful data that does not demoralize the kids or hold them back."

More consistency and clarity also was the goal of the New York City Public Schools, the nation's largest school system, when it began report card revisions. After a year of effort, the district is ready to roll out new report cards for first through sixth graders in December.

The old report cards were 12 pages long, included 39 skills, and had a confusing grading system where C was the highest grade and A the lowest, said Paul Rose, a spokesman for the district.

The revised version is four pages and grades students on nine skills, using a 1 to 4 scale, the same scale that is used on New York State achievement tests.

"We hope it will help parents understand how their children learn, without wading through a bunch of jargon," Rose said. "We also hope it will improve communication with parents."

Seattle school officials also wanted a report card that better reflected standards when they revised the district's K-5 report cards a few years ago. "We did a lot of work with the community about standards," Steinberg. "We started with state standards and district standards. I think it's been a smooth process."

A COMPLICATED, EMOTIONAL ISSUE

Making any changes to a grading and reporting system, several administrators told Education World, is a long, labor-intensive, and often sensitive process.

Montgomery County, Maryland, administrators had planned to launch new report cards this year, after three years of study and development. But confusion about how the new system works was so universal that implementation was postponed for a year.

"They [teachers, parents, administrators] did not have time to fully understand it," Brown said. "This bought us time to do it right. The more you get into it, the more complex it really is. It's a complicated but emotional issue."

Three committees currently are working on grading and report cards. The major question still to be resolved is how to assess students who are below average, disabled, or who speak English as a second language, and may make progress toward meeting the standards, but still are far below them, according to Brown.

School administrators also are struggling to "keep ahead of the myths," she said. "People are jumping to conclusions, saying we only will use tests and quizzes for grades, and that is not true. Factors such as participation, attendance, and behavior will be recorded, but separately [from grades]."

Cleveland school officials started the process by doing their own homework. "First, we looked at some other school districts, and talked with district personnel," Robertson said. "During the pilot, we had teacher and parent focus groups."

Adjustments also were made along the way. "We had to sit the curriculum people down and tell them we can't have more than seven statements per class," according to Robertson. "We had to try to come up with a set of statements that is common ground and meaningful to students. We have between 50 and 70 statements per student."

The report cards are available to teachers online, and the district hopes in the next few years to make them accessible to parents via the Internet as well. That way, a parent whose child received a 2 in reading comprehension could go online and see examples of work needed to earn a 3 or 4.

"Right now, we estimate about 50 percent of parents understand the standards," Robertson said. "The goal is to get 100 percent reading and understanding [the comments] inside."

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