- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

When it comes to handing out report cards, Loudoun County third-grade teacher Janet Finn is glad to use numbers instead of letter grades.

“It makes it easier when I’m talking to parents,” says Mrs. Finn, who teaches at Balls Bluff Elementary School in Leesburg, Va., about using a 1-4 numbering system to measure levels of proficiency among third-graders, a system that has been in place since 1995. “I can go back to that criteria and say why this is where I think they are now. [Letter] grades don’t take into account different developmental levels.”

The same thing goes for students. “To them, they understand what an A is and an F, but they don’t understand the difference between an A and a B and a B and a C,” Mrs. Finn says, adding that when letter grades are used, “It makes it so much more competitive within the classroom. … When they are getting grades on their report cards, they are getting grades on their papers, too. They know that there is so much emphasis on getting an A.”

At Alexandria City Public Schools, “We make that emphasis not on grades in the very early years because we don’t want children to feel that they are pushed to achieve a letter grade,” says Lois Berlin, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, who holds a doctorate in education. “Some skills are emerging. Some have already been established. We would rather report [grades] in a way that lets parents know a child’s development.”

Loudoun County, Alexandria and other area elementary schools use a variety of report cards to make the transition to letter grades. Students’ grades begin to count academically in the ninth grade for graduation from high school and admission into colleges and universities, or earlier if high school courses, such as algebra, world geography and some foreign language classes, are taken in middle school.

Long before their grades begin to count, students are acclimated to report cards that, no matter the symbols used, mark their progress. The Virginia and the Maryland Departments of Education leave the decision of report card design up to individual school districts and do not require the use of letter grades.

Initially, letter grades can be “confounding to the child,” says Ronald Dyer, director of elementary education at Loudoun County Public Schools. “The type of report cards we use should change with the child.”

Loudoun County employs four types of report cards to sharpen the level of evaluation as students move up in grade level. The kindergarten report card uses markings of “consistent” and “inconsistent” to measure reading readiness, skills in writing and mathematics, work study skills, and social responsibility.

The report card for first and second grades applies a 1-3 grading scale to measure whether proficiency is demonstrated in the curriculums for those grades, while the third-grade report card has a 1-4 grading scale to indicate proficiency, achieving, developing and needing improvement. The report card for grades four and five uses letter grades.

“Grade three is a transition report card,” says Mr. Dyer, who holds a doctorate in curriculum and instruction. “This is not synonymous with grades, but it is indicating more to parents. The idea is we’re starting to show parents where their child is in the continuum.”

Arlington Public Schools uses an A-B-C-D-E grading scale that begins in the third grade and avoids using the letter “F” to show failure. The kindergarten report card includes two measuring devices to mark progress and areas of strength and difficulty in intellectual, social/personal, physical and artistic development. The report card for grades one and two uses the same measuring devices but refines the subject areas to reading, oral and written communication, mathematics, social studies and sciences, along with social and work characteristics.

“Younger children are much more influenced by developmental stages,” says Kathleen Grove, assistant superintendent of instruction for Arlington Public Schools, adding that measuring student performance against other students can be “misleading,” since children develop at different rates. By third grade, children typically are ready to read to learn as opposed to learning to read, and what they study becomes more standards-based, she says. At that point, their report card provides information on how well they meet the expectations of the curriculum and the subjects taught, as measured by a variety of assessments, including tests, essays and homework assignments.

Montgomery County Public Schools also uses letter grades for grades three through five, with the kindergarten through second grade report card applying marks of “O” “S” and “N” to measure outstanding, satisfactory and needs improvement.

“We are looking at the best way to communicate with parents about student progress. It’s not really what symbols you use but the meaning,” says Karen Harvey, director of curriculum and instruction for Montgomery County Public Schools.

Montgomery County plans to begin implementing standards-based reporting in the 2004-05 school year and issue grades that measure how students perform to the standards and grade-level expectations.

“We’re moving into a grade having integrity and academic meaning,” says Ms. Harvey, who holds a doctorate in school administration. In the past, other factors, such as effort and extra credit, were taken into account to determine grades. “When a child gets an A, that means they mastered all of the grade and course level expectations,” she says.

Any time parents are concerned about their child’s grades, they should call the school to set up a meeting with the child’s teacher, says Janet Bass, spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers, a labor union based in the District that represents 1.3 million members.

“You have to find out what is going on, what area is the problem area, what is happening in home and the classroom and what has to be done to raise the performance,” she says. “It’s important for parents to have a daily check on how their child is doing.”

“In most cases, I would expect if the grade was less than the parent was expecting, then the parent already has heard from the teacher. Ideally, the report card is not a surprise,” Ms. Grove says.

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