Are Letter Grades on Their Way Out?
When your child brings home her first report card this year, odds are you'll be looking at the familiar As, Bs, and Cs of your own school days. But the times may be "a changin'." [insert_object]As more and more schools experiment with new methods of assessment, you could face a new brand of report card in years to come.
Why mess with the old system? John Lounsbury of the National Middle School Association has more than a few good reasons. "Traditional report cards are of minimal value to parents," says Lounsbury. "Letter grades do not report at all on many of the things that parents find most important: Is my child making friends; is he responsible; is he learning new skills?" For answers to these questions, Lounsbury recommends that parents go directly to the teacher.
Alfie Kohn, author of Punished by Rewards agrees, and takes the argument one step further. He says, "The research on grades has demonstrated three robust and reliable findings: When kids are led to focus on getting good grades, they tend to do less creative thinking; they pick the easiest possible task if given a choice, and they begin to lose interest in the learning itself." Kohn encourages parents to ask educators to move away from letter grades toward more "authentic" forms of assessment, such as portfolios and narrative comments.
In an attempt to provide more accurate information about what students are learning, some schools are experimenting with alternatives to letter grades. In Kentucky, for example, most kindergarten through third-grade students don't receive grades at all. Instead, teachers keep a folder, or portfolio, of each student's work. Ideally, this collection of work will show the student, teacher, and parent where progress has been made and where improvement is needed.
How is this grade-free system working? Pam Coe, of the Appalachia Educational Laboratory, Inc. in Charleston, West Virginia, says it has received mixed reviews. Her organization recently surveyed six Kentucky schools and found that the parents were happier than the teachers. She says parents appreciate the additional information about their children's progress, but teachers find the state's reporting system "burdensome." Some Kentucky primary schools plan to return to more traditional grading methods this fall.
Lounsbury is not surprised. He says that things can get confusing when schools switch over to alternate forms of assessment, but then require teachers to sum things up for the district (or state) with the same old letter or number scores. And keep in mind, teachers who send home traditional grades may, at the same time, be using different assessment methods in their classrooms. Many have been collecting student work in portfolios and writing narrative comments for years. The difference is that they use these methods alongside letter grades, instead of in their place.For a full glossary of educational terms, pick up a copy of Improving Your Child's Education: A Parent's Handbook for Working with Schools by Chrys Dougherty ($9.95 from Omni Publishers, San Antonio, 1-800-375-1711).
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