Standards Based Report Cards; Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?

My district switched to Standards Based Report Cards this year and at first I felt happy; after all, we were stepping away from letter grades and toward feedback based narratives, right?  Wrong.  After having sent out my first set in December, I once again realize the failure of report cards, even if they are standards based.  So while there may be some positives; they are supposed to be broader skills, narrative missives rather than just percentages, and we finally all have the same report card, I still see some massive red flags:

  • You have to speak educationalese to understand them.  Phrases such as, “Uses decoding skills, uses comprehension strategies, and recognizes and uses different genre and text features while reading” now abound on our report card without any proper explanation of what they mean.  I felt compelled to write an explanation letter with each report card so that parents and students may actually have an idea of what it is they are being graded on.  If I am doing a narrative letter, then why in the world am I also doing a report card?
  • Numbers get converted to letter grades.  We may urge parents to not think of a “4” as an “A+” but let’s face it, they do.  My students did it the first day they got them and they will continue to do so no matter how many times I tell them not to.  The only difference is that now everybody wants 4’s rather than A +’s.
  • We are still quantifying some learning,  even though you really can’t.  I have to break down whether my students ask appropriate questions or follow multi-step directions into a grade, are they truly two grade levels above in their direction following or are they just at a 5th grade level? My head was spinning by the end of it.  
  • Learning that is supposed to be differentiated is not graded differently.  So a child with special needs is graded the same way as a child without.  That way we can ensure that all kids that struggle know that although they have worked very hard and have progressed, they will never be where their peers are.  Take that you struggling learner!
  • We don’t offer learning opportunities where children can prove they are accomplished.  I have to follow a scripted math, science, social studies, and writing program.  This is all crammed into very short amounts of time.  Within that time I have to get through the lesson and then somehow leave time for enrichment so that my students can show me just how “accomplished” they are to get a 4.  That doesn’t always happen.  So although I strive to do project-based learning, I still have to get through my curriculum, and that does not allow for deeper exploration   You may be accomplished in science, but I will probably never find out if I just follow the curriculum.
  • We expect kids to learn at the same pace so we can evaluate at the same time.  We forget that children gravitate toward different subjects, learn at different paces, and learn in different ways, and yet we grade them the same.  What is our obsession with numbers and data?  We test them just so we know what they supposedly know and if they do poorly then we have to teach them how to test better.  That is sheer insanity to me.  To have a single standard you have to decide that there is only one way to learn, and we know that to be false.  When we don’t provide students with multiple opportunities to show us that they know we are not doing our job.  Or at least I am not.  
  • It is still not narrative.  Standards based report cards offer us four grading options; 1, 2, 3, and 4, and yet still leaves the recipient wondering what they need to work on.  Sure they may have received a “2” in summarizing but that “2” does not tell them what they need to work on; the teacher does hopefully through goal setting with the student.  I itched to add comments to every single box to explain exactly what the child should work on, but I didn’t, because it defeats the purpose of a quick way to show learning.  I will always feel that report cards are obsolete in a classroom where feedback is continually given and goals are set along with te student.  Having moved to standards based report cards only solidifies that opinion.

What do you think?  Are standards based report cards better than traditional report cards?  Am I missing the point of them or being too harsh?  Are they just lipstick on a pig?I would love to have a discussion regarding this.

11 thoughts on “Standards Based Report Cards; Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing?

  1. I totally agree with 1 and 2. I see the same things. It seems like no matter what number or letter we attach to grades, parents will always equate them with A's, B's, and C's. Letter grades are so ingrained in our culture, it is hard for us to not to do it.

  2. I'm with you on most of this. I think SBAR is a step in the right direction, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. I like that my students and their parents receive feedback on individual standards (more information than just an A in reading), but it's still insufficient. Our scale is 1, 2, 3, and my students still equate a 3 with an A. I think a narrative would be better, but I must confess the thought of writing 60+ narratives overwhelms me. (On a side note: I have to give both traditional grades on a 100 point A-F scale & SBAR grades on our report card.)

  3. You're totally right about most standard-based grading and report cards. The 0-4 scale is too much like the A-F scale, but even worse, nobody (even teachers!) know what those standards really mean. I'm a teacher, and I wish we could just simplify all of this a little bit.One of my colleagues teaches at a school with narrative report cards. That might work. Another friend has a grading system that ensures that students turn in major assignments but allows students to participate in student-led conferences to evaluate themselves at the end of each semester. I'm leaning toward something similar, although it'll be controversial. Thank you for your post.

  4. I agree.. but I can't resist adding my thoughts on the source of the struggle. Standards-based grading is rife with challenges rooted in decades of tired practices that are ingrained in society's collective memory. I believe strongly that the challenges that you present are based more on poor implementation (usually at the district and state level) than on flaws in the philosophy itself. How can we expect parents and students, for example, to consume standards-based feedback without first educating them as we would any other new skill that we believe to be in their best interest?At our company, we work hard to overcome the enormous obstacles to implementation of the idea, under the assumption that the idea's time has come! As an example, check out a recent blog post by one of our team members, a parent and an advocate of SBAR:http://www.jumpro.pe/jumprope-blog/why-should-a-parent-be-excited-about-standards-based-grading

  5. I would like to see skills listed (not in educational terminology), with checkboxes next to each one, checked if the child has met the standard. Maybe it could look more like a continuum where there are certain skills expected in the beginning of the year, etc…That to me makes the most sense, the key is the get the most essential skills on that report card.

  6. I could not agree more; implementation is key here and is not something to be rushed through. However, how many districts really go through the proper implementation having all of their things lined up as well as educate the parents? I know some do, but I fear it is not many because it takes time. So while I still think the philosophy has some merit, I go back to how we present each kid; as a set of date points and numbers, or as child with skills that can be developed and further grown? Can we do both on report cards?

  7. I've seen a number of small moves by districts to address many of these challenges. In most cases, the solutions were developed after SBG was rolled out and offered as a solution to a problem. I suspect that the more systemic SBG becomes, the more these solutions will be embedded into the structure, rather than slapped on afterwards. With regards to the 1-4 issue, some schools are switching to roman numerals or label headings. "Beginner", "Developing", "Established", "Mastery". The first letter is used on the report cards and having them in alphabetical order helps but the fact a "B" is beginning provided enough cognitive dissonance for most parents to pause before translating. A challenge with checklists is that many standards are intended for year-end mastery. So for 3/4 of the year, students could conceivably have a report card full of empty boxes. The cryptic nature of standards is a challenge. I know admins who advocate for keeping the original language because parents deserve and/or need to be familiar with the standards. Some NYC schools send home a document each marking period that provides a translation to families. The guide is also used during student-led conferences. In class, standards are translated into "I can" statements to support reflection.What I find so intriguing about SBG is that it is, in effect, an open source grading system. Because of blogging teachers like yourself, districts putting key documents on their websites, and lots of districts willing to take those first steps, I'm excited to think that, perhaps for the first time in formal public education, a grading schema will emerge that makes cognitive, emotional, and sociological sense.

  8. I'm a little late to the discussion, but when my former district switched to standards based report cards, I think most of the teachers felt it was going to be a good thing. Your first two comments, to me, hit the nail on the head. They were hard to explain to parents and yet, at the end of the day, they wanted a letter grade because that was the easiest for them to understand. I don't think they really cared about the standards.

  9. Great post. Very thoughtful and big in my mind. I was in a school that rolled it out thoughtlessly and have since then (8yrs) been working to get it integrated in others (no success).- SBG points out a number of flaws inherent in school. If we really want to integrate the best practices across the board, is our system capable of handling it all (think time, politics, emotions). – Most importantly, we have to consider if we're truly willing to stomach telling students that their greatest efforts may not be enough. Personally, I propose a growth grade (maybe that's where your narrative could be) and an "objective" achievement grade.- The big difference between 1-4 in a SBG system and A-F in a traditional is the scope of the F. There are simply too many insurmountable zeroes given to students in traditional grades. I can recover from a "1" or a "NEI (not enough information)," but not from a "0" or a "15."Everything's imperfect. SBG is the same; we just aren't used to it's issues yet. As Jenn B. says below, allow it to improve over time.

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