Washington public school officials, stung by complaints from angry parents and teachers, have abandoned last year's complicated report card forms for students. At the same time, they have tightened grading standards.
Students this fall are taking home a more traditional report card that gives letter grades in some areas and, for mathematics and reading skills, offers simple assessments of whether they are performing at grade level.
On those cards some elementary students for the first time will see grades of "D," a letter grade not previously used at that school level. Formerly, a grade average of 70 out of 100 earned a "C," but the new report cards add a "minimum" passing range of 70 to 77 -- a "D" -- that raises the lowest "C" grade to 78, the lowest "B" from 80 to 85, and the lowest "A" from 90 to 93.
The new forms themselves are in sharp contrast to the report cards introduced last fall, four or five-page forms that shunned letter grades in favor of elaborate checklists assessing various components of a child's reading and math skills. School officials said they intended those complex forms to give parents more detailed information about their children's progress, but parents complained they couldn't understand the reports.
"Some of it was like Greek," recalled D.C. substitute teacher Ann Dennis, who tried last fall to help decipher her nephew's first-grade report card. "I had to look up some of the abbreviations myself."
Dr. James T. Guines, associate superintendent for instruction, said that the checklists, which described the level of reading skills by stating such things as whether a child could "apply CVC principle" or "identify initial consonant substitution," should never have been sent to parents in the first place.
"That was one of the great mistakes of last year," said Guines yesterday. "The darn thing was just too cumbersome. There was jargon that professional educators, but not parents, could understand."
After a wave of complaints from confused parents and angry teachers, who said completing the complicated forms took too much time that might better be used for teaching, school officials set up a task force of teachers, administrators and parents to redesign the report cards.
At the same time, school officials took up the question of revising grade levels, eventually producing the standards that appear on the new cards. "We didn't have a 'D' for borderline students last year. You still have to do a 70 to pass, but we wanted to imply that a little over 70 percent was just barely making it," said Guines.
He said carving out the "D" grade in the range that is traditional in most systems using that grade served to push up the other score standards. "The intent wasn't to make students at higher levels work harder, but it does lead children and teachers to shoot higher."
The new report card's more stringent grade scale bothers some officials close to the D.C. schools who felt that the "D" level scores should have been taken from the top of the "unsatisfactory" scores instead of from the lower "C" scores.
"They should have made the 'D' 65 to 70 and should have left the other scores alone. Enough of these kids are on the borderline of failure. That would have kept some of these kids who were trying very hard from thinking of themselves as failures," said William H.L. Brown, president of the D.C. Congress of Parents and Teachers.
The new report card itself is a single sheet with four carbons attached. One sheet is marked and sent to parents after each grading period and the final copy, which records the whole year's grades, goes in the student's file.
The assessment of reading and mathematics skills has been dramatically shortened. Instead of a page of esoteric terms, the report card simply states whether the child is performing at, above or below grade level in reading and mathematics.
A notation of "6B" in reading for a fifth grade student, for example, would mean that the child is reading at the level of a second semester, sixth grade student.
For all other subjects, from language to social studies, letter grades will be used, said Guines.
A new section assesses the child's social skills and assigns a letter grade for "citizenship." If the child needs improvement in one or more of those social skills, a ten-count list follows that tells parents whether their child, for example, fails to listen attentively, fails to efficiently use time, fails to do his or her best consistently or needs to improve his or her overall behavior.