Area schools put to test on how to grade Public, private systems working to revamp report cards, marks

Common factors emerge

Changes would affect wording, traditions, academic calendar

October 19, 1997|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Report cards aren't as simple as ABC or 1-2-3 these days.

Witness the 90-minute school board debate in Baltimore County last week on how much the final exam should count toward high school students' grades.

Or the four-year struggle to replace the elementary school report cards in Carroll County.

Or the continuing battle in Howard County over replacing dots, slashes and X's with soothing words such as "emerging" and "independent."

Throughout the metropolitan area, public and private schools are struggling to revamp report cards and grading systems, pressured by changes in teaching, parental demands and the elevation of building self-esteem to a goal of education.

While school systems debate the details, some common elements emerge in the way that grades are given, locally and nationally: Letter grades are all but gone from the early grades, replaced by phrases describing how well a student knows and uses a skill. As a result, elementary progress reports are closer to checklists than to traditional report cards.

Elementary educators work hard to avoid damaging young egos bTC by saying their work is "unsatisfactory" or "needs improvement." Rather, the child "needs support" or is "working toward" grade level.

Letter grades are retained in high schools, for traditional and practical reasons.

Most middle schools also use letter grades, though some give them only in core subjects, such as mathematics, English, social studies and science. Some middle school report cards also give considerable attention and space to rating performance in study skills and getting along with others.

"As you move from nursery school through 12th grade, the grading systems are more traditional," said Steve Clem, a vice president of the National Association of Independent Schools in Washington.

In private schools, he said, "there is emphasis on narrative comments and increased emphasis on parent conferences."

The same is true in public and parochial schools. The Archdiocese of Baltimore has been wrestling for a year with the design of its systemwide elementary report card. It is trying a pilot report card in a dozen schools this year.

School year realignment

The new reporting system will force a realignment of the school ** year, from quarters to trimesters. Students will receive report cards every 12 weeks, with interim reports required, said Joanne Rojas, co-chairwoman of the report committee and principal of St. Ambrose Catholic School in Baltimore.

Archdiocesan students will receive narrative reports through second grade. In later grades, they will get a combination of traditional grades and comments on progress, as well as marks in each subject for conduct and effort, she said.

New report cards

The new report cards "are very different, almost to the point of being overwhelming because they are so large and have so much information," Rojas said.

In Carroll County public schools, where a revised elementary report card is in its second year, "parents are better able to understand more of what their students don't understand and more of what they can help students with," said Gary Dunkleberger, Carroll's assistant superintendent for instruction.

At McDonogh School, students in pre-kindergarten through fourth grade find a combination of checks and narratives on their report cards, some of which run to 15 pages, said Mary Lu Greenwood, associate head of the lower school at the coeducational private school in Owings Mills.

The more narrative report cards put greater demands on teachers, who must keep track of each student's skills and spend more time preparing the evaluations, administrators say. But teachers find benefits, too, Rojas said, because they will have a much clearer picture of what incoming students can do.

In Baltimore, parents eschewed the descriptive phrases, asking the city school system to return to letter grades in elementary schools, though not the traditional A-F scale, said spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt.

Instead, teachers use E, G, S, P, U for Excellent, Good, Satisfactory, Poor and Unsatisfactory, respectively. Students also get number grades to indicate their skill levels, she said.

Parental input

Parents influenced the changes enacted last week in Baltimore County, as the board approved policies that will standardize grading, report cards and homework guidelines throughout the county.

For the past several years, schools have been free to develop their own progress reports, and about half have done so, according to a school system survey. Beginning in September, the county report card will be revised and used in all schools.

Though school officials did not initially recommend returning to a countywide report card, they did so ultimately because that's what parents wanted, said Ronald Thomas, executive director of the school system's department of educational accountability.

'Overwhelming response'

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