RBUSD standards-based grades questioned

by Mark McDermott
Published February 21, 2008

There is a revolt among the 3’s in the Redondo Beach Unified School District.

A new standards-based grading system implemented in the district’s elementary schools this year has drawn fire from parents of some high-achieving students. At last week’s school board meeting, parent George Hanniff presented a petition signed by 87 parents requesting that changes be made to the new report cards, which for third, fourth, and fifth grades have replaced the traditional lettered grading system with a numeric system.

The problem, parents say, is that their children now find themselves “lumped” together in the largest grading block – most “A” students have become “3” students.

The grades A, B, C, D, M, and L have been replaced with 1, 2, 3, and 4 (RBUSD had previously replaced “D” and “F,” using instead “M” for “more practice required” and “L” for “lack of work”).

Hanniff said that new system has taken away incentives for students to achieve excellence because a “4” is “all but unobtainable” while a “3” has a broad range that under the old system includes grades A, B, and C.

“It is just changing things so drastically in how kids perform,” he said. “We have to give them incentive to go from good to great. In this system, there isn’t the incentive, the reward, for kids to do extra work. A student can see, ‘I can get a 70 or a 93 on a test and I get the same grade.’”
Parent Pam Absher said that her daughter Susannah Nevarez has lost motivation because of the new system. Susannah, a fifth grader at Tulita Elementary, was formerly an “A” student on almost all her work and her cumulative grades. But now, according to her mother, she is mired in “3’s.”

“I’ve watched my daughter from start to finish in her education get 92, 93, 94 percent,” Absher said. “You know, those are great numbers. She is an excellent student. But all of sudden she is lumped with someone who may be getting an 80…Her comment is, ‘Why do any extra credit? What good is it going to do?’”
In a letter to the board, Hanniff said that under the new system the district should change its slogan from “Good to Great” to “a more representative ‘From Good to Standard.’”

Superintendent Steven Keller said that extending standards to assessment is both necessary and logical since students are receiving standards-based instruction. Keller said the goal both of the state’s Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program and the federal No Child Left Behind legislation are more consistent, and therefore accountable, educational standards.

“I think we are all under the umbrella of No Child Left Behind,” Keller said. “At the state and national level, the push is for a standards-based education, and the report card represents that shift. There is a baseline content of what is taught in schools, whether urban, suburban, or rural. Taking that into consideration, on a positive level we have high expectation of all children, regardless, so that baseline standards-based comparison really does provide for all students. The days of the traditional A, B, C, D and F, at least for most school districts, are assessments of the past, like it or not, because this state and most states in the U.S. have gone to what most educators argue is a better calibrated assessment.”

The superintendent said the new grading system simply aligns instruction and assessment.
“Without alignment students, staff, and parents are confused regarding progress,” Keller said. “How do we monitor progress, otherwise?”

Administrators acknowledge that the “3” has become a prevalent grade, but argue that this is a good thing – a “3” means that the student is has met state standards and is “proficient” at his or her grade level, which is the state-mandated goal.

Assistant superintendent Annette Alpern, who oversees instructional services, said that the new report cards represent a fundamental shift in assessment that may take some time for parents to understand and for educators to fully implement. But she said that RBUSD is hardly at the “cutting edge” in this – standards-based report cards are quickly becoming the educational norm in public elementary schools.

“I think the truth is that in today’s standards-based world report cards are not about comparisons, but about individual progress against a state standard,” Alpern said. “It is no longer a comparison from student to student.”

Alpern said that many of the changes to the new report cards have been embraced by parents. One page of the two page card is called the “progress key” and includes neither letter nor numeric grades but checks, pluses, and “N’s” (for needs practice and support) regarding very specific standards language arts and mathematics.

For example, one of the 18 measures assessed under “Reading Progress” reads: “Understand and explain frequently used synonyms, antonyms, and homographs and affixes.” There are 41 such descriptions of specific language arts and math content standards and assessments of student’s performances in those areas, which also happen to be the content areas tested in STAR tests.

“I think everyone appreciates [the report cards] for the information it gives them on their child,” said Vivian Ibarra, RBUSD director of child development. “It is more record keeping, but teachers have said they know kids better – and know a child’s specific areas of weaknesses and strengths,” Ibarra said. “So when the report card says ‘Doesn’t read well,’ parents will also know why, not just that the student is not reading well.”

Hanniff questioned why the progress key didn’t cover all subject areas. He said this was illustrative of how the school district, in the interest of raising its overall standardized test scores, was “teaching to the test.” If the goal is proficiency, he said, the children left behind are the students who are motivated to achieve beyond proficiency.

"The School Board has put their interests ahead of the students,” Hanniff said. “If you look at the new report card it is readily apparent they are teaching to the STAR tests."

Keller said that including all subject areas in the progress key would make the report practically unmanageable – turning the report card into a “short pamphlet” and creating an overly cumbersome workload for teachers. But he said it was true, in a sense, that standards-based education involves teaching to the test. He noted that in order for students to receive a high school diploma, each must pass the state’s exit exam – which is based on state standards.

“As the instructional leader of this school district, that must be an educational priority, like it or not,” Keller said, adding that this doesn’t mean only standards are being taught. “I encourage any parent to visit an elementary classroom for the entire day – it’s very standards-based, but there is certainly more in the content and activities than standards.  I credit our terrific teachers for expecting more.”

School board trustee Carl Clark said he found the new system troubling.

“We are not only teaching to the test but grading to the test,” Clark said. “We are downplaying success rates in grade schools in general to talk about what is on the tests. Those are probably not words that Dr. Keller or any other educator wants to hear, but that is what is going on.”
Clark said that grades should, in part, be about competition – not just the comparison of student achievement to a state standard, but with each other.

“I’m not sure that competition is such a bad thing, frankly,” he said. “That is the way the world works. We have competition on our sports fields, and we have competition in our classrooms sixth grade and up. So how can competition be so bad between kids in fifth grade, and then the very next year it’s fine?”

Trustee Jane Diehl said this shift represents a cultural change that will take time to fully be absorbed.

“It’s a change in student’s attitudes, teacher’s attitudes, and parent’s attitudes,” Diehl said. “Everything is changed. Now, do you think we will have the same problems with our students who are first graders now? No, because everyone will better understand this by then.”

A story told by a parent at last week’s school board meeting illustrates the divide between this new and old culture of assessment. The woman, who did not identify herself, said her daughter was a straight “A” student. The little girl would frequently come home exclaiming, “Mom, I got an A!” Under the new system, however, the most the little girl is able to do is arrive home and say, “Mom, I am proficient.”

“How do you celebrate proficiency?” the girl’s mother asked.

Absher also questioned the consistency of the cultural change when her fifth grade child will go back to getting “A’s” next year in sixth grade.

“They keep trying to say it’s an old school way of thinking, but my old way of thinking is going to be the current way of thinking next year in sixth grade,” she said.

Standards-based assessment is unlikely to take hold in middle school or high schools – grades become part of a permanent academic record in high school, and so must correspond with educational measurements used in colleges. But Ibarra said that standards-based instruction and assessment will help insure that students have a stronger foundation by the time they reach the more traditional grading system.

“The question is, ‘Is you child learning what they are supposed to learn at each grade level?’” Ibarra said. “It’s not ranking any student next to any other student…We are able to feel more comfortable when we give a grade or a mark that we understand exactly what that grade means, within our own schools, from grade level to grade level, and from school to school.”

The exact definition of each numeric grade – which are only used in third through fifth grade, as neither letter or number grades are used in earlier grades – is described on each report card. A “1” means “below grade level expectations,” a “2” means “basic approaching grade level expectations,” a “3” means “meets grade level expectations,” and a “4” means “exceeds grade level expectations.”

Parents say that very few students have received “4’s.” thus far. Alpern said that part of the reason for this is that students quite naturally would not reach grade full grade level proficiency until later in the school year, and therefore few will exceed their grade levels until later in the year. But she said that teachers may need to give students more opportunities to exceed grade level expectations.

“I don’t think there is an assessment or a report card that is without controversy or is not a work in progress,” Alpern said. “We have no issue with getting feedback and continuing to revisit these issues. It is just the nature of the work we do.”

A survey will be sent to parents in March. Hanniff already has a suggestion. He said one way to fix the current system would be to make it five points. He argues the current system is “out of balance” because it recognizes two grades under proficient but only one above.
“I just think higher end performance should be given the same encouragement as the lower end,” Hanniff said.

Hanniff also argues this is more in line with STAR measurement, which also includes five levels: far below basic, below basic, basic, proficient, and advanced. But administrators worry that parents would then mistake the new “3” with a “C” and assume their child is meeting standards when he or she would not actually be reaching proficiency.

Diehl said that some parents would also have the same problem under this system as they have now – a “5” would be as elusive as the “4” is now. She instead has suggested adding pluses and minuses to the “3,” thereby giving kids more incentive and parents a clearer indication how their child is performing against state standards.

Parent Lee Ann Farmer said the district should go back to the old system for third grade and above. She said her daughter, a fifth grader, used to be a straight “A” and honor roll student and now no longer feels successful as a “3” student.

“I think they fixed something that wasn’t quite broken,” Farmer said. “Because if they are trying to pinpoint where a child was weak, I think they need to do that in the lower grades, when she is learning to read.”

School board president Drew Gamet said that the board will consider several options after it receives more feedback. But he cautioned that parents and the school district need to make sure there are broader definitions of success being taught to children than any grade can contain.
“The reason we sometimes lose kids is that learning becomes not fun,” Gamet said. “At some point, they stop being successful, so thinking they are sitting there, saying ‘I need to get a good grade,’ especially a third grader…You may be teaching them to be competitive, but I don’t think you are turning them into a good learner.”

“They have got to be interested in the material and the process….Some kids are driven on this kind of artificial premise that grades matter because grades matter – like grades for the sake of grades – then they start asking the question, ‘Why?’ Then you say, ‘Well, in eight years you are going to be going to college and then you need be ready to go out and get a job. The reality is some kids are going to think, ‘College in eight years or playing with my friends now?’ They are going to make judgments like that. So we need to engage them in school because they enjoy doing it.”

Parent Meaghan Johnson argued that like it or not, however, kids measure their successes by grades, and under the new system kids are losing their incentive to try harder.

“The sad thing is where if they miss one or eight on a 20 question quiz, kids are going to get a 3, Johnson said. “If you have a kid who only misses one and says ‘Why should I try?’ Most of us parents grew up in the A,B,C culture, and that is what we understand. If there is a change, it needs to be balanced, something parents can relate to. I feel there is no incentive for kids to try harder, and mediocrity is not okay.”

Alpern said the issue touches on the biggest challenge all public education faces – truly leaving no child behind.

“That is the challenge of public education,” she said. “How do you serve everyone while at the same time serving every single individual? That is why we are public educators, because we believe it is possible to do both.” ER