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Ditching letter grades for a 'window' into the classroom

Ditching letter grades for a 'window' into the classroom
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Tuesday, April 8, 2014 - 1:23pm

(CNN) -- Krista Wolfram might be out running errands or in the pickup line at her daughter's school when the alert appears on her smartphone.

Sometimes, it's a picture from 7-year-old Serenity's writing journal, with a line or two of feedback from her teacher; or, it could be a video of Serenity singing in music class.

The messages come at least once a week, sometimes more, and provide Wolfram with more than just a brag book of images. It's real-time insight into her daughter's learning, enabling her to think ahead about how she can help Serenity at home.

The messages started going out to some parents at Georges Vanier Elementary School in Surrey, British Columbia, in fall 2013 as part of a pilot program. The school wants to make communication between parents and teachers more detailed, frequent and collaborative.

Because Wolfram is getting frequent updates about her daughter's educational highs and lows, there are no surprises come report card time. Eventually, the district is hoping to phase out periodic report cards in favor of regular, descriptive communication and a year-end summary or portfolio review, Surrey school district Superintendent Jordan Tinney said.

"We're trying to boil it down to what do parents really want and need to know about a child's progress in school? How can we give parents a window into class?" Tinney said.

"We believe traditional report cards are highly ineffective in communicating to parents where their children are in learning. If we can communicate this learning routinely to parents, then we see the need for report cards and the stamp of letter grade going way down."

Schools around North America are trying to replace traditional report card grids of letters and numbers with descriptive feedback about students' mastery of topics. Rather than a series of cumulative scores in each subject based on a mashup of tests, homework, extra credit and behavior, schools are trying to show how well students understand core concepts -- and involve parents more in the process.

In the education world, it's often called standards-based grading. It's become the norm at most elementary schools, and it's gaining momentum at the secondary level.

Still, it can be a struggle for parents who remember their own semester report cards and the easy comparisons made between As, Bs and Cs or number scales. Others, like Wolfram, like the change.

"It's been helping me feel like I'm more connected to my daughter and her classroom," Wolfram said. "By visually seeing my child's work, I can see what the teacher means by 'She's not writing enough,' and work with the teacher to fix the problem."

Separating achievement from behavior

The philosophy behind standards-based grading is generally consistent from school to school, but it can look a lot different in practice.

At Georges Vanier and other Surrey elementary schools, it means abandoning letter grades for a color-coded sliding scale with cues like "approaching expectations" and "meeting expectations." Nearby elementary schools serving the Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows communities rank student comprehension as "emerging," "developing" or "applying," and hold "student-led," in-person reporting conferences twice a year instead of sending home formal report cards.

A new grading system in Virginia Beach, Virginia, elementary schools, marks students on a range from "advanced proficient" to "novice" in each subject's standards.

In Oregon, a new law says schools can use letters or numbers to assess students, but the grades must be based solely on academic performance. Those marks will no longer consider whether an assignment was turned in late or if a student talks in class.

Proponents of the new systems believe that traditional grading leads to inflated marks for students who behave well in class, even if they don't have a strong grasp of concepts -- and lower grades for those who understand ideas but arrive late or fail to turn in homework.

Flaws in traditional grading come from outdated and inconsistent notions about its purpose, said Ken O'Connor, an education consultant who advocates for standards-based grading.

"They give the community the wrong message of what school's all about, that it's about the accumulation of points, when we should be doing everything to make clear school is about learning," O'Connor said.

But what's popular for elementary-age students can be a tougher sell in middle and high school.

Parents and teachers become less willing to abandon letters and numbers as students prepare to apply for college, O'Connor said. But even within the same school, different teachers might determine grades in inconsistent ways, he said.

O'Connor argues that numbers and letters can serve a purpose -- as long as they're buttressed by ongoing communication of a student achievements.

"Report cards are a permanent record -- they're helpful to provide a summary of student achievement every year as part of a communication system, but it's not right to think they're the be-all-and-end-all," he said.

Some schools are compromising at the middle and high school levels by implementing standards-based learning that still incorporates letter and number grades.

At the Solon Community School District in Iowa, older students still receive letter grades, but parents hear more often from teachers and there's a fresh focus on priorities, said Matt Townsley, the district's director of instruction and technology.

Solon schools are in the second year of implementing standards-based learning for kindergarten through 12th grade. In the past, teacher comments might be jotted on the pages of a test or scribbled in the margins of a term paper. In the new system, detailed feedback is available digitally, and it's the focus of periodic parent-teacher discussions and student evaluations. Plus, it helps to use those tests and term papers as evidence to support student assessments.

"We felt eliminating letter grades would be too much at once," he said. "But we know homeschooled children who often don't get letter or number grades make it into college each year. We just need to do the research on our end and figure out how to make the college seamless transition for students and be able to assure parents."

No parent support? 'Dead in the water'

The schools serving Maple Ridge and Pitt Meadows in British Columbia began developing a plan to eliminate letters and numbers from kindergarten through seventh grade in the 2010. Parental involvement was essential to taking the plan live district-wide in fall 2013, acting Assistant Superintendent David Vandergugten said.

"We realized early on that if you don't have parents on board, you're dead in the water," he said.

All schools in British Columbia stopped using letters and numbers in kindergarten through third grade classrooms years ago, and more recently in grades four to seven.

The district interviewed parents and asked them to evaluate templates, leading to the new system in which students and teachers fill out an assessment sheet that measures their competencies at their grade level.

In the first two terms of every school year, students lead a conference with their parents and their teacher to discuss the evaluation. In the third term, the student and teacher work on the evaluation together before sending it to parents at the end of the school year. That final evaluation goes into students' permanent records.

Parents of students in grades four to seven can still request letter grades. But Vandergugten said the number of parents who requested them went down after the first term.

"The face-to-face process is so powerful that we're finding once parents go through it, they understand what we're trying to accomplish," he said, claiming a 97% participation rate among parents in the student-led conferences.

At Georges Vanier Elementary School in Surrey, students still received report cards in the first term. But by using notes she'd been taking throughout the year, second-grade teacher Wendy Hall said she spent far less time preparing them.

Before, she said, she would jot notes on slips of paper and rarely reached out to parents. Newly equipped with an iPad and FreshGrade assessment software, she typically sends parents one to three individualized updates each week.

Parent Krista Wolfram says she is already seeing the benefits for her daughter. When Hall told Wolfram that Serenity was struggling to write about her favorite superhero, Wolfram immediately knew it was because Serenity didn't have one -- she's more interested in fantasy stories and dragons.

She and Hall came up with the idea to provide alternate writing topics for students, and that improved Serenity's performance, Wolfram said.

"She went from complete fail in the topic, which I wouldn't have known about until report card time, to a complete pass by report card time, which is just so exciting for a parent," she said.

Susan Taylor, whose son is also in Hall's class, used the evidence to improve her son's penmanship. Taylor said she loves the window into her son's classroom because he rarely offers up information when she asks him.

"It gives me the ability to do more directed questioning instead of 'How was your day?'" she said. "I have a better take on what's happening."

Still, the transition isn't entirely smooth. Not all the elementary school teachers use the software with the same frequency.

An older son in eighth grade is adjusting from receiving letter grades in seventh grade to a new sliding scale that says he's approaching, meeting or exceeding expectations.

Meanwhile, Taylor says she wouldn't want to give up letter grades for her 12th-grade son. He's applying to post-secondary schools that ask for GPAs and reports in numbers and letters. Still, she wishes she received regular updates on his progress, and that he'd have a digital portfolio of work like her younger children will.

"If they could find a way to dovetail the two systems, that would be ideal," Taylor said.

Reconciling multiple systems -- and levels of comfort among educators -- are some of the biggest challenges schools face, Georges Vanier Elementary School Principal Antonio Vendramin said.

And, that's OK, he said. Changes take time.

"As long as we're getting into the habit of communicating student learning on an ongoing basis, we're on the right track," Vendramin said. "Scales, letters and numbers are only as good as the meaning you give them."

Would you like your child's school to cut out traditional report cards for more detailed, frequent communication? Share your thoughts in the comments, on Twitter @CNNschools or on CNN Living's Facebook page!

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