Report Cards Reveal We Fail at Grading

1 Feb. 2013
An open letter to parents and educators: 
"Good job, sweetie. Right?  Good job? Yes. Very good job!"

My kids came home with their report cards today. They both, as expected, did brilliantly this term.  I could not be more proud of them.  On their 1-4 scoring system, neither of them got any 1s ("needs improvement").  They scored, for the most part, right where they should be or higher in every area, just like they've scored "well" in the standardized tests they've taken so far, even when those scores seemed out of line with what I'd expected. But neither of them "need improvement" and I am pleased and proud as always, not that it would have made much of a difference if their cards had said otherwise.  Like most parents, I know that the grades and scores my kids get don't define them and may or may not accurately reflect what they know.  (This simple fact alone, which is pretty much common knowledge among parents, should be enough to raise the reddest of flags on the "Race to the Test" thinking that currently governs how schools seem to be operating).  But what I really know about their progress I know from what they tell me, from what I observe when I volunteer at the school, and from my many emails and conversations with their teachers.  Because after reading the report cards, I have to admit, I'm a little confused.  After reading both of them over several times, I'm increasingly convinced that the only thing we can "grade" with these report cards is how bad we are at grading.

My 8-year-old son (now in 3rd grade), who was reading chapter books independently before he started kindergarten (at age 4), never got "4s" ("exceeds proficiency") on his first year report cards. My 6-year-old kindergartner daughter, who is also advanced in reading but not reading difficult books independently, got seven of them. I remember being shocked at that first parent conference when my son was in kindergarten, and asking his teacher how it could be that he didn't get any fours, when he'd tested into kindergarten even though he was a little shy of the age cut-off and been encouraged - because he was "advanced" in so many areas - to start school early.  His teacher very politely explained that they didn't really give out fours. When I asked the principal, later, why not, he said that was a good question and it was an imperfect system that each teacher could interpret differently. Which makes sense, but doesn't really help parents understand the reports. And certainly doesn't explain why we'd invest much energy in taking them very seriously.

This semester, my son got all 3s ("consistently proficient") and even a couple 2s ("approaching proficiency") in math and reading (except "reads above grade level" = his sole 4), despite the fact that he has been placed in the supposedly advanced "math exemplars" group and reads with the TAG ("talented and gifted") group.  This child, who spends 1-4 hours a day reading on his own, for fun (and would spend more if I didn't make him turn out the light), got a 2 in "practices independent reading."  And despite the fact that I was just moments ago breathlessly informed that the work of architect Miguel Coelho has "inspired" a "fantastic" idea for a "spiral sandstone staircase" for him to build in Minecraft (after he finishes his "custom Observatory"), they both got 2s in "applies knowledge of visual arts vocabulary" and "demonstrates knowledge of art history and culture" (NA there for the kindergartner).

By the time they were done logging in all the numbers and symbols, neither teacher had much time to write detailed comments in the "comments" sections, but the presence of the identical phrase "Eager to participate in classroom tasks and activities" on both kids' cards indicates that these are also standard-option additions to the "report."  No room - or time - for individualizing things in a standardized curriculum, including feedback.

So how am I supposed to interpret this "data"? As a reflection of my children's skills and knowledge or as a reflection of the inability of this scoring system to reflect anything other than a waste of the teachers' time?  And we want to assess the merit of our TEACHERS on this system?  The testing and assessments that lead to these scores seem just a massive waste of time.  How many hours did those teachers spend inputting the data that produced these "reports?"  How many hours did my kids spend lolling about while their classes were assessed to meet the strange and strict rubrics laid out in this system?

The only thing these cards seem to "report" is that progress is not measured consistently across teachers/grades/classrooms, and that whatever it is they're measuring is none of my concern.

I volunteer in these classrooms.  I know these teachers.  And I know that these teachers know how much every child in their classes can and can't do.  They know how hard to push them when they need pushing and how gently to hug them when they need hugging. 

These are not lazy people. These are not people who haven't spent the required time with each student to evaluate their work and get to know them.  These teachers don't need a test, or a rubric, or a "common core standard" to tell them who needs the most help in reading and who needs focused time spent on being more challenged.

The current drive toward even more emphasis on testing and assessment is a dead-end road that benefits neither our children nor our educators.  And it certainly doesn't benefit parents, for whom these "report cards" become an incomprehensible puzzle, a gaping hole between their own knowledge of their children and how they think their children are perceived, measured, and understood by the school.

I know, as a college English teacher, that grading is NEVER easy.  Whether you have a strict rubric (as I tend to use) or a very lax system, there is always a fine line between the precision of assessing skills, quantifiable and qualifiable  results, and assessing the intangibles (effort, focus, revision, process, passion, drive, commitment, understanding, self-reflection, cohesion...the list goes on forever).  There is always, at some level, something subjective about even the most objective of assessments: this is my call.  How do I make it?

In an effort to regulate and standardize these assessments, and out of a noble desire to ensure that we are fair and impartial graders, and that every student gets a fair shot at a good grade and the time it takes to earn it, we've messed things up. Seriously.  And I fear that the move toward a "common core curriculum" is so rigorous, so complicated, so complex and time-consuming and demanding of the teachers that it's just another massive wall that both teachers and students need to climb to meet each other on the top.  Not a very good climber?  "Needs improvement."

It's time to stand up for a better system.  When we talk about how we need to "reform" our schools, why on earth would we start that conversation by saying - as the Michelle Rhee and "Race to the Top" crowd does - that we should focus on improving the "scores" that have been proven (time and time and time and time again) not to measure much of anything?

And here in Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker has promised time and again that his idea of "reform" means giving teachers "merit pay" for improving their students' scores and pouring more public money into giving kids the "choice" of attending private schools and pouring more public money into selective and unaccountable charters (even for-profit ones) that have not been proven at all to outperform regular public schools. Now we even give reports cards to the whole school, which could do serious damage to property values and public perception if a flawed scoring system dictates the alleged "success" or "failure" of a district.

But the bottom line, for me, is this: Will any of this help teachers teach?  Will any of this help students learn?  No.  But it will most certainly help move money around - much of it directly into the pockets of Walker's major campaign contributors and their "associates."  That's not reform.  That's exploiting the status quo for the profit of a few at the expense of the many.

It's time to hold the measure of education up to a new standard: one that lets teachers teach, and students learn. One that lets parents be a real part of the conversation and values their knowledge of their children's needs and abilities. One that trusts teachers and their professional judgment, and doesn't look at them with a constant suspicion, even going so far as to suggest that they don't "merit" their pay until their students out-test another teacher's students. One that puts teaching before testing. One that reflects what the teacher knows about the student, not just what the teacher has measured with a broken yard stick.

1 comment:

  1. Very well said. I will share it. What so many of the so-called reformers are most interested in is money in their pockets — follow the money.