Farewell to letter grades: responding to standards-based report cards

Are you seeing report cards that look different? Hearing less and less about A’s, B’s, and C’s? More and more schools across the country have moved—or are moving—away from letter-based grading to standards-based grading and the associated standards-based report cards (SBRC), particularly in grades K-5. This signals a departure from both the traditional A, B, C, and D system, and especially for younger children, some variation of E, G, S, or NI.

The move is resulting from a confluence of factors, ranging from increased complaints about the subjectivity and/or vagueness of letter grading, growing reluctance to give a D--often then lowering the standards for a passing-level C--to the need to measure Common Core State Standards (CCSS). As of a year ago, according to Vox, 43 states had adopted Common Core, with implementation of CCSS at the state level tied to federal funding.

In moving toward SBRC, as districts look at how others have made the move, the process tends to look quite similar. For example, the Issaquah, WA, District (411), is characteristic. Last year they reported that “During the 2014-15 school year, a committee of elementary teachers, administrators, and curriculum specialists is collaborating on the revision of the elementary report cards to align with the Common Core State Standards. Additional goals include: provide consistency from Kindergarten through grade 5, provide consistent reporting to parents, [and] meet the needs of multiple audiences (i.e., teachers, parents, students).”

As another example, in describing and presenting its own move to SBRC for K-5, the Derry Township School District in Hershey, PA, published its rationale, noting that “The report card is designed to stimulate an on-going conversation between teachers, parents and students about what is expected of students in a rigorous academic program.” The website further suggested that “Through the identification of clear benchmarks, a student’s knowledge and skills are measured on a continual basis, stretching students to perform at their highest level of potential.” It also claims SBRC “emphasizes ‘learning’ over ‘earning.’”

Among other things, this shift means that parents and kids alike are encountering words once reserved for the upper grades—or even college—much earlier. One is rubric, meaning the specific criteria used in evaluation and assessment. Having those criteria clearly stated can help demystify grades, but the criteria themselves can sometimes need clarification or definition. The resulting “marks” may be numbers or checks or minuses. Plus, some systems still involve letters such M for mastery or P for progressing.

One thing that remains very much the same is the need for parents to understand the grading system used locally and be closely involved with their children’s academic progress, viewing themselves in partnership with teachers.

Journalist Patti Ghezzi, who covered education and schools for 10 years for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, wrote an article about these trends in grading and report cards for School Family titled “How to Interpret Report Cards” (crediting Emily Graham as a contributor). In it is a subsection of suggestions for responding “when the report card isn’t good.” They include scheduling time to consult with your child’s teacher, working with the teacher to develop a plan for helping your child get back on track, getting to the root of the problem, identifying whether grades have dropped in a specific subject or subjects vs. all around, which can suggest different problems, and also assuring your child of your love and your commitment to helping him or her get those grades back up.

Workbooks are one excellent way to help support classroom lessons at home and boost grades. They include these math workbooks for K-5 that follow Common Core Standards and Word Searches Super Deluxe Activity Zone workbook for ages 8 and up. For just $5.99 it offers pages and pages of word puzzles but also delivers lessons in science, history, and the arts. Meet people: explorers, pioneers, and authors. Encounter ecosystems: mountains, rivers, oceans and seas.

Shakespeare offered that “a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” and it is much the same with grades. Whether called an A or “mastery of proficiency,” success is just as sweet!