Thomas and other Montgomery parents of young elementary students say they are frustrated because their children have been earning fewer top grades on report cards that use ES, P, I and N instead of the traditional A through E system the county uses in its middle schools and high schools. With the new system, a student can get every question on a quiz correct and still earn a P (“proficient”) — not an ES. After the first year with the new grading system in place for first- through third-grade students, some parents say they want changes.
The county adopted the new report card system to reflect material students are learning using Curriculum 2.0, the county’s response to state and national reforms calling for tougher education standards. ES is “exceptional,” P is “demonstrating proficiency,” I is “in progress,” and N means “not yet making progress or making minimal progress” toward meeting standards.
That few, if any, children come home with straight-ES grades is by design, school officials said. The report card reflects new, more challenging academic standards, said Ebony Langford-Brown, director of elementary instruction and achievement for Montgomery County Public Schools. The district is considering rewriting the explanation on the back of the report cards to clarify the new grading system for parents.
“Before, when you got an A, that may have been on your recall of facts,” Langford-Brown said. “But proficiency [now] means that you can use the facts in some way and use them differently — synthesizing, analyzing and making value judgments.”
The anxiety over the grading system will probably continue as Curriculum 2.0 and the new “standards-based” report card expand to include fourth- and fifth-graders next year. Students in kindergarten received the new report card this year, but they only receive P’s, I’s or N’s. Before the new system, students in first and second grades received a series of three letter-based evaluation marks, while third-grade students earned A through E marks.
Jill Schuck, a third-grade teacher at Ritchie Park Elementary School, said students can earn ES grades, but the expectations are high. It is not a matter of having a third-grade student who can do fourth-grade level work or having a student who is getting enrichment or acceleration.
During a lesson on rounding numbers, students discussed a chant they learned the year before: “Five or above, give it a shove. Less than four, it goes down to the floor.”
Schuck said one student raised his hand and asked: “What happens to the numbers between four and five? Like 4.5?” That student earned an ES in class that day.
The class changed the chant: “Five and above, give it a shove. Less than five, take a dive.”
“I was able to say this kid has an exceptional understanding of numbers and rounding,” Schuck said. “It is statistically impossible for a child to be ES across the board. It should be.”
Grant Wiggins, an expert on educational assessment and president of Authentic Education, said school systems across the country have used the adoption of the Common Core standards as an opportunity to develop report cards that are more consistent and detailed.
“A through F stands for whatever any teacher or group of teachers wants it to mean,” Wiggins said. “It is currently possible to get straight A’s from a very poor teacher in a very poor school and yet fail state and national tests.”
Instead of assigning students a single mark for a subject area, new “standards-based” report cards are designed to divide subject areas into individual skills students are expected to know for their grade level. Teachers then assess students based on their progress toward meeting those expectations by the end of the school year.
Standards-based report cards aim to be less subjective. Student effort, turning in homework late or missing assignments could be marked against students on a traditional report card. But standards-based report cards mark those work habits separately.
The Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations has asked for amendments to the grading system. Amanda Graver, co-chair of the council’s curriculum committee, said many county parents like the higher standards and new curriculum but worry that some teachers and schools are more generous than others in doling out top marks. And if a teacher does not offer enough assignments or opportunities for a student to earn an ES, it could be impossible for a student to earn an ES on her report card overall.
“Consistency in application,” Graver said, “that’s the main key.”