System charts pupil progress

Baltimore County tests computerized checklist for parents

August 11, 2007|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,Sun reporter

For years, parents have complained that report cards skimp on the details and don't go far enough in helping them understand what their children have - or haven't - learned in school.

But a new progress-reporting system developed by a longtime Baltimore County educator aims to fill that gap with a computerized checklist that charts detailed objectives and skills.

Tested this spring in a few county schools, the system is being made available on a voluntary basis to all of the county's teachers this coming school year, and the superintendent hopes it will be widely used.

FOR THE RECORD - A graphic that accompanied an article Saturday about a new progress reporting system to be tested in Baltimore County schools misstated a mathematical term. The correct algebra term is commutative property.

In addition to the traditional reports with letter grades that measure students' mastery of a given subject, participating teachers will give parents progress reports that will tell them whether their children can, for instance, convert fractions to decimals or determine percent of a number. Until it is mastered, a skill or objective follows a student from grade to grade.

School officials and community leaders see the reporting system, called the Articulated Instruction Module, as a tool for parents who want guidance on how to help their children.

"As test scores show, too often children are failing, and no one responsible for their education seems to know why, and there is no other evidence in the student's folder other than a bunch of papers with letter grades," said Barbara Dezmon, assistant to the county school superintendent for equity and assurance, who created the program. "At the end of an education, we just know that the student is not adequately prepared."

Some educators and civic leaders applaud the new reports, especially their plain language. Others, including the county's teachers union, worry that the checklists will be one more task on teachers' already full plates and leave them open to undue scrutiny.

It's hard to peg how many school systems nationally are using similar progress reports, but Baltimore County's effort appears to be a rare step toward providing a comprehensive skills inventory that should systematically track a student's progress. Education advocates point to it as an example of what more school systems ought to be doing to ensure that students aren't falling behind.

"These type of growth models go beyond the one-time snapshot and tell us how much does Johnny know now and how much did he progress," said Reginald M. Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association. "This comprehensive measuring of progress is a step in the right direction so that parents understand, `What is it my child should know?'"

Pleased parent

James West, a 42-year-old logistics manager, said he was pleasantly surprised this spring when his stepson's math teacher gave him a three-page report during a parent-teacher conference.

His stepson, 12-year-old Tyre Bethea, is a rising seventh-grader who was among the students whose teacher at Woodlawn Middle School participated in a small-scale pilot of the program in the system's northwest-area schools, including Powhatan, Hebbville, Woodmoor and Featherbed Lane elementaries.

"It helped us out a great deal," said West, who added that Tyre has struggled with math. "I know what I need to do to help him out. I know what he can do and can't do, and what he's working on."

West said the report helped him determine where Tyre might need tutoring and gives him, as a parent, the confidence that his stepson is on the right track.

"I'd hate for him to go along through each grade and get to the end, get a diploma and still not know what he needs to know to be successful," West said. "This little piece of paper could make a big change for a lot of people."

Other districts, including Prince George's County and Baltimore City, are interested in using the system, according to Baltimore County school officials, who added that all of Maryland's systems can use the copyrighted program for free beginning this year.

Dezmon, a former English teacher, said she began developing the program nearly 20 years ago when she was looking for ways to better communicate with parents, especially those of minority children, and homeless and otherwise transient students.

"This makes it easier to do individualized instruction because the teacher knows exactly what a student has or hasn't learned," Dezmon said. "With this, there are no good kids and no bad kids, just children and the skills they should know."

But the president of the county's teachers union said preparing the progress reports - which would be done quarterly in addition to report cards - will burden overworked teachers. She also worries that instructors will be blamed when a child fails to master a skill.

Doing such reports, in addition to regular report cards, "would create an enormous amount of work for teachers," Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, wrote in a July 10 letter to school board members and schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston.

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