Toying with school: Report card grades may miss the mark

SUSAN REIMER

November 16, 1993|By SUSAN REIMER

The school year's first report cards have arrived and my children want to know what's in it for them: toys or cash?

Kids don't see the value of a sound elementary education or a record of their performance there. All they know is today's A on a spelling test can mean tomorrow's trip to Toys R Us. Pretty simple.

For parents, report cards present questions beyond whether to reward good grades with dinner at Chuck E. Cheese's or to treat them as praiseworthy, but expected.

We want to know what these grades mean.

If one second-grader can misspell "evaporation" and "erosion" and get a B while another child in the same classroom -- but in a different reading group -- can spell all the words on his list (get, set, let, pet) correctly and get an A, then what do those grades mean?

If testing reveals that some fourth-graders have command of fifth-grade math concepts while others in the same grade are at a second-grade level, what do any of the grades these children receive mean?

"They are meaningless," one elementary school teacher says flatly. "Within a classroom or within a school, there is no conformity. They say we have to evaluate a child in terms of a letter grade, but we would prefer not to."

It isn't that they can't. Ask the three teachers who see the same third-graders every day to rank those children from No. 1 to No. 30, and you can bet all three will place them in nearly the same order. Grades may be ambiguous, but a teacher's ability to evaluate a child is not.

"That's why the only thing that really matters is a parent's communication with a teacher," the elementary teacher says. "That way, you might understand what the grade means. But more important, you will know how your child is doing."

Grades produce a kind of competition in the classroom that teachers do not like to see. Pass back graded papers and watch as each child checks his neighbor's mark. "Some children want A's, and they will do anything to get them." a teacher says. Cheating is one way, they learn too early.

And the idea that a second- or third-grader can receive a D or an E is appalling to this teacher. "Why knock them down? They can't write, but why tell them they can't write when it is our job to teach them. They have too many years left in school to start them out this way."

But remove grades from the classroom and that same teacher worries about what it will do to motivation. "Kids know who gets A's, and those A students become examples and role models. Other kids go to them for help.

"But in an ungraded classroom, when anything they do becomes acceptable, how do you stimulate them to do better?"

Lorraine Costella, assistant state superintendent for instruction, says that report cards should be only one piece of information about our children. Parents need to know how the child is progressing and how he compares with others.

Besides, she said, elementary children are at widely varying ... TC stages of development, and they learn different things at different times and at different rates. That's why teachers are discouraged from failing to promote a child to the next grade.

Dr. Costella sees a number of reporting practices at schools around the state that she likes. One is a kind of letter home -- a narrative about how the child is developing and achieving. Another is a check list of skills with a place to mark whether the skill has been introduced or has been mastered.

Perhaps her favorite method of reporting is a portfolio -- a collection across time of work the child has done. It would show not only progress, but to what the child has been exposed.

"But you can imagine the storage problem that would present for 300 elementary school children," Dr. Costella says, laughing.

She has seen the future, too, and it excites her. Can you imagine a video of your child's performance plus a computerized check list of everything he has mastered? Or a CD-ROM that comes home every nine weeks?

But the method of communication does not matter as much as the communication itself, Dr. Costella says. If you want to help your elementary child, it is almost more important to know what he does not understand so you can help at home.

That's fine for parents. But all my kids want to know is: Does an A equal a Barbie or a buck?

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