By the time children enter first grade, says Rodgers Forge Elementary School teacher Martha Cole, they have all heard the legend of the straight-A report card.
"They set up unreal expectations for themselves." And, she adds, so do their parents.
The all-too-common comments from mothers and fathers -- such as "We don't have 'C' students in our family -- it's just not acceptable" -- led the 46-year-old educator to conclude that traditional report cards put too much stress on her 6-year-old students.
"Harvard is not going to be looking at their first-grade report cards," she said. "Why can't we just give children a year to fall in love with the process of learning, instead of worrying about grades?"
What's missing from the traditional report card, she said, is an understanding that learning is continuous. "Not every child is going to reach the same goal post at the same time. I don't like to give a 'D' to a kid who's a slow starter."
Moreover, young children often don't understand what the grades mean, she said. One student, for instance, "wanted to know why there wouldn't be any 'P's on her report card," Mrs. Cole said. "She said 'P' was her favorite letter."
Motivated by these concerns, and taking advantage of Baltimore County's current effort to revise its elementary school report card, Mrs. Cole got permission to try an alternative way of monitoring first-graders' process.
She developed a "non-report card" -- a five-page summary of work done in class that breaks down each area of study into descriptions of ability, based on county skills guidelines and a developmental checklist for the first-grade curriculum. Instead of get ting an A, B or C, a child's work may be categorized as "progressing," "demonstrates consistently" or "needs improvement."
Each evaluation is followed by a parent-teacher conference, which offers a review of each child's academic, social and emotional progress. Mrs. Cole recognizes the evaluation is lengthy but said "there is no way to get away from that."
Even more lengthy are Mrs. Cole's meetings with parents, most of which last more than an hour. It took her a month to meet with the parents of her 29 students this year. But the conferences provided an opportunity for all parents to see that their children were progressing at their own pace, regardless of academic standing, Mrs. Cole said. And, "just being able to sit and talk with the parents, face to face, for the good of the child is positive," she said. Only one parent, Mrs. Cole said, requested letter grades.
David Greenwood, an assistant superintendent who played a key role in giving Mrs. Cole permission to use her "non-report card," said the approach encourages more feedback from parents than does a traditional report card. "At all years, grades put stress on kids," he said. "This is an interesting concept."
Joseph T. Watkins, principal at Rodgers Forge and a member of a county committee studying ways to revise the elementary school report card, said officials have discussed eliminating letter grades for all elementary school students. "We're trying to get kids to feel good about themselves and to feel good about school," he said. "Our society expects perfection. Too often, if it's not an A, it's not good enough."
Two local child psychiatrists agreed.
"If there's any way of getting away from having parents compare their children to other children, it would be noteworthy," said Dr. Mary Furth of Towson.
"I have seen many 'school-phobic' kids who fear that their parents will not love them anymore because they can't get the grades their parents expect."
Dr. Sheldon Glass, another child psychiatrist, said, "The grade, per se, is not as important as other things in the educational process."
"I think that student interaction is more important than grades." Some "children need one to two years' socialization skills before they can perform."
Mrs. Cole agreed.
"You can't work with kids this age for very long without realizing how sensitive they are," she said.
"Looking at that was what made me want to find a better way to let them know how proud I am of them."