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When schools don't communicate well with parents

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 15, 2010; 11:56 PM

A seventh-grader at River Bend Middle School in Loudoun County is getting little homework. Under a new system called standard-based grading, teachers are supposed to use quick quizzes in class, not overnight assignments, to assess how students are doing. It is fairer and more dependable, many experts say, but it is also preventing the student's mother from helping her child learn.

"Parents don't find out until after a child has been assessed whether the child knows the subject or not," said the mother, who asked not be identified out of fear of stigmatizing her child. When her child was still doing homework, she could check it for signs of comprehension. Now, she said, "all I see are in-class work sheets and study guides, which tell me nothing about understanding of the subject."

The surge in quizzes and tests is also frustrating, she said, because her child has a learning disability that makes test preparation a hard slog.

Her efforts to find out why this is happening, and what she can do about it, suffer because of the difficulty of any public school sending parents a consistent message about what is going on. The miscommunication that results is one of the least-reported and most aggravating parts of the American education system, so I decided to look more closely at the parent's complaint.

The school has a very experienced principal, Bennett Lacy, who has run River Bend since it opened 10 years ago. River Bend was one of only two among Loudoun's 13 middle schools to make adequate yearly progress last year under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Lacy has embraced the standards-based grading system as a way to raise achievement for all students.

With frequent quizzes, teachers check for comprehension before going on to new lessons, he said. They grade only on how much has been learned, not on classroom behavior or homework completion or other matters shown by research not to reflect achievement.

"Grades should be comprised of clear and precise evidence over time of what a child knows, understands, is able to do and carry forward," Lacy said.

Just how to communicate that to parents, Lacy indicated, is a work in progress. He said he did not think the complaints about too little homework and too many quizzes were the fault of standard-based grading but instead could be handled by individual teachers.

According to the mother who spoke to me, teachers say they can't change the homework policy and many don't like it. Their solution to the wear-and-tear of so many quizzes and tests is to give students a chance to take breaks, and to retake tests if they have poor results.

Lacy said he asked the teachers who had the child of the parent who spoke to me why they gave so little homework and was told students would not do it because it didn't count on their report cards. He said that wasn't true of that particular child, but he did not discuss the individual case with the teachers because he did not want them to treat the child differently because her mother had complained. I asked whether that meant he feared some of his teachers might act unprofessionally. "Well, it has happened," he said.

So the parent still does not know the teachers' candid view of what will help her child. Some schools have paid parental advisers to bridge such communication gaps, although the jobs are often cut when budgets get lean.

This mother has gone outside the school, spending $550 on tests to determine the nature of her child's disability so she can help with the surge of quizzes. The student is doing better in retests at River Bend. The mother said she hopes that continues but that she still yearns for a chance to understand why the school is pursuing a course that does not make sense to her.

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