In Baltimore Co., A's and B's fail the self-esteem test Schools to phase out traditional grades

November 23, 1992|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Staff Writer

A's and B's aren't making the grade in elementary school anymore.

Traditional grades don't measure what's being taught, teachers say. They're more important to parents than children. They wreak havoc on self-esteem and slap children with labels that are tough to shake off, no matter how hard they try.

For these and other reasons, Baltimore County schools are taking a hard look at letter grades and report cards. With the end of the first quarter, some schools are experimenting with alternatives and with extended parent conferences.

In the next year or so, traditional grades will disappear from the county's elementary schools altogether, although there are no definite plans for middle and high schools. Similar experiments are under way elsewhere in Maryland and around the country.

"In the last two years, there's been a tremendous amount of interest [in alternative grading], much of it at the elementary level, but even into high school," says Robert McClure of the National Education Association's National Center for Innovation.

While teachers generally support the idea, not all parents are happy about it. They say the new systems penalize A and B students, dilute academic standards for the sake of self-esteem, put more work on overtaxed teachers and cut into their children's class time for conferences.

A few examples:

* At Reisterstown Elementary, students will still receive letter grades in mathematics, reading and English this year. In social studies, science, art, music and gym, however, teachers will rely more on comments than specific marks. There will be a checklist of skills in each subject, and teachers will indicate how far along the student is progressing with each skill. Parents and teachers will meet at least once a year.

* At Rodgers Forge Elementary, half the second- and third-graders will receive traditional letter grades. The other half will get a different bowl of alphabet soup. Their report cards will evaluate their progress with specific skills in each subject with E's, B's and I's. They stand for "Emerging," "Beginning" and "Independent."

* At Dundalk Elementary School, each grade will have a different reporting system. Some students will be graded on effort; others won't. Some will get traditional A's and B's; others will get yet a third bowl of alphabet soup to evaluate their skills -- DC for "demonstrates consistently", P for "progressing," D for "developing," and so on. On top of that, they'll get number grades for effort and a series of checks, pluses and minuses in some grades and subjects.

Stuart Berger, the county's new school superintendent, says he doesn't believe in letter grades, particularly for young students. But even before he arrived, a committee was at work to develop new grading procedures. It will make a recommendation to the school board next month.

"Our intent is to have this ready to go in September." says Nancy Brooks, acting administrator in the office of elementary school instruction and a member of the grading panel. "We don't see any roadblocks."

A complex system of skill assessments and teacher conferences may mean more work for teachers than A's and B's, but most seem to think it will help children in the long run.

"There's not a child alive who comes to school to get D's and fail," says Mary Marchione, principal at Joppa View Elementary School in Perry Hall. "They come to be the best that they can be."

And that best, even if it would rate only a C or D in traditional terms, should be rewarded and encouraged, teachers say.

The new report card "will be much more explanatory and less bottom-line," says Ms. Brooks. "It will focus on developmental milestones; we don't want it to be a specific checklist."

For instance, "being a reader" may be a milestone. "Reads independently" and "understands what he reads" may be characteristics of that milestone.

Some jurisdictions have already made smaller adjustments. Carroll County gave up traditional letter grades for first- and second-graders years ago, says Dottie Mangle, the county's elementary school director. Young students there get O's, S's and N's on their report cards -- Outstanding, Satisfactory and Needs Improvement.

But parents didn't let the county go too far.

"Parents advocated retaining traditional letter grades for third, fourth and fifth grades," says Ms. Mangle. "Our community spoke very loudly."

Around the country, school systems are developing a variety of approaches, according to the NEA's Mr. McClure. Schools in Seattle, Wash., and Manhattan, Kan., are letting the students "take the lead" in handling conferences with teachers and parents. In Gorham, Maine, students keep their portfolios on computers.

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