South Florida Sun-Sentinel.com
Letter grades vanishing from some Palm Beach County report cards
District pilots new 'standards-based' report card at 13 elementary schoolsBy Marc Freeman, Sun Sentinel
10:06 PM EDT, September 20, 2010
It begins with a trial at 13 schools across the county, including two campuses that were trailblazers in dropping letter grades in the past decade. The new report card could make its way to more of the district's 107 elementary schools next year.
"We've pulled the plug on this many times," Superintendent Art Johnson said of the so-called standards-based report card, designed to show how well a student is mastering reading, math, science and social studies.
Instead of letter grades, students at the experimental schools will be given "performance codes" — exemplary, proficient, approaching or needs development. Exemplary means the student exceeds standards for the grade level.
Teachers and curriculum specialists developed guidelines for how teachers should assign these new performance codes to reflect a student's understanding of concepts. The old grading scales — 80-89 is a B, for example — are gone, for class work as well.
That worries Karen Holme, a parent of two from Wellington who has been active on a Facebook page that led curriculum protests last year. She questioned whether the schools will have a clear "measuring stick to determine if a student has mastered, partially mastered or barely mastered an objective."
"If one has no measurement, it's totally subjective," said Holme, whose children attend private school through the McKay Scholarships for Students with Disabilities Program. "It leaves the barn door open for kids to get any grade."
Johnson says he realizes parents may have an affinity for the traditional grading scale and will have to be convinced that the district is not dumbing down the system.
"We've been accused of lower standards," Johnson said, adding that there is no plan to remove letter grades from middle and high schools. "Don't worry about grades going away. They are going to be around for awhile."
Ironically, the district touts its "A" rating from the state for six straight years as proof that it is "the top performing urban school district in Florida."
The main push for removing student grades, he says, revolves around the "psychology" of giving a young child an F or low marks.
"If you say to a student, 'You're failing,' they start to wear that internally," Johnson said of the stigma. "They become that."
Until now, the district has used letter grades on elementary school report cards to indicate the "quality of work" by a student within his or her particular performance level.
But educators say this doesn't tell a true picture, because a student can get Bs and still be below grade level standards. These standards are what children are expected to learn in each subject at each grade level.
A report card without letter grades "gives the parent clearer information about progress toward a standard that a simple grade cannot," Assistant Superintendent Connie Tuman-Rugg said.
That doesn't mean it will be easy for some parents to accept. The affected schools have been holding meetings with parents to explain the changes.
"We grew up with the As, the Bs," Tuman-Rugg said. "This is a mind shift, not just for parents, but for teachers, too. And this is a way this generation of kids will understand what it takes to be proficient and to be above that."
Similar cards have been used elsewhere in the nation and in Florida. Broward schools do not use letter grades in kindergarten through second grade, using a 1, 2 and 3 numbering system instead, to indicate student performance. There is a separate notation to indicate whether students are performing at grade level or below.
Broward has no plans to change the letter grading system on report cards for grades 3-5, a spokeswoman said.
Palm Beach County administrators and principals say the timing is right because the report card had to be revised this year to match new state standards.
"Teachers can more accurately report to parents how their students are performing," said Stephen Sills, principal of Melaleuca Elementary west of West Palm Beach, which is one of the pilot schools. "The key will be good communication between parents and teachers, home and school."
The old card — with its letter grades that can be misleading about a student's mastery — also has confused parents because it has a category separate from letter grades called "performance level," Sills said. This shows if a student is on track for being promoted to the next grade level.
There's a 3 for being on or above grade level academically, a 2 for being less than a year below grade level and a 1 for being more than a year below grade level.
So it's been possible to get high grades and 1s at the same time. Educators also point to the conflict of students who receive good grades in the same year they don't do well on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.
On the flip side, a student who shows mastery by the end of a 12-week marking period has been penalized with C and F grades for getting poor test scores early in the period.
"It's illogical," Sills said.
Crystal Lakes Elementary west of Boynton Beach and Elbridge Gale Elementary in Wellington dropped letter grades years ago, to rave reviews from teachers and parents. The schools had clearance from the School Board and teachers union to use different report card models.
Andrea Sandrin, mother of a fifth-grade boy at Crystal Lakes and a ninth-grade daughter who used to attend the school, says she wound up liking the report card after some initial doubts.
"The first time I saw this I thought, 'What the heck is this?' " Sandrin said, but it turned out to be wonderful for her daughter, who had a learning disability.
"She would have been looking at Fs. That would have changed how she thought of herself," Sandrin said. Today, her daughter takes advanced high school courses. "Grades have emotional baggage."
Marc Freeman can be reached at mjfreeman@SunSentinel.com or 561-243-6642.
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