Wake Ed

November 4, 2013

Discussing Wake County’s new report cards for elementary school students

Wake County school board member Jim Martin is questioning the grading scale used in the new elementary school report cards and the wording of the individual “big idea” grades that have been added.

What do you think of Wake County’s new elementary school report cards?

You probably haven’t seen them yet unless you’re the parent of a student at a year-round or modified-calendar school. But, as noted in today’s article, when traditional-calendar parents get them on Nov. 12 they’ll notice things such as changes in the grading scale and a lot more individual grades being awarded.

With all these changes, the school system will send to parents guides explaining the report cards. This school district website has a link for the guide, a YouTube video on the changes and some other information.

The discussion at the Oct. 1 board work session and interviews last week highlight some of the issues involved. Two of the biggest points of contention is the move to a four-point grading scale and the inclusion of individual content grades within each subject.

"We know that challenges and change bring opportunity and so within in that we’re looking for the opportunity to enhance what we’re doing at the elementary level,” James Overman, senior director of elementary school programs, told school board members last month.

This school year, all elementary school teachers were required to begin keeping an electronic grade book to input grades through the state’s new PowerSchool system. While Wake has encountered glitches that led to the report cards coming later than normal, in theory it’s supposed to save teachers time in the future.

Overman told board members that the report cards were modified to align with Common Core state standards. This includes the new “big deas” section of the report cards where students receive grades for individual concepts that they’re learning in each subject, such as how well fourth-grade students are doing learning to add and subtract decimals.

Previously, teachers would often include comments on those kinds of concepts in the report cards.

"We have the opportunity to provide meaningful information for parents,” Overman said. “It’s more information than we’ve ever been able to provide to parents.”

Overman said the additional info means parents can see in more detail how their children are doing and provide additional assistance at home in areas where the kids are struggling.

When it got time for board member comments, board member Jim Martin was quick to raise his concerns Oct. 1.

Martin said he was happy that 3* is gone as a grade because it wasn’t being applied consistently. But he said he wasn’t thrilled with going back to a four-point scale.

"We’re saying 3 is proficiency and 4 is exemplary,” Martin said. “That’s a very, very compressed scale. Proficiency is sadly too often are you above the line and there’s a big difference between are you above the line and are you exemplary.

There was much sentiment in the student achievement committee for either going back to 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or A, B, C, D, F. Both are a five-point scale so I’m a little curious, concerned why we have a four-point scale and based on a four-point scale in particular, it strikes me that it’s not well divided. There’s a big jump to 4."

Overman responded that they needed to remove 3*, saying the 4-point scale was in line with the Common Core and consistent with how other districts were handling elemetnary school grades. He added they had made the change after talking with Ken O’Connor and Thomas Guskey, whom he called “the gurus of standards-based grading”

“So the other thing to keep in mind is what is nice about the Common Core state standards is that Level 3 is the standard for where all students should be and so now with the things that are included with Common Core it pushes our students,: Overman continued. “A level 3 now should look different than a level 3 student we had in the past. What we’re trying to do is spend time with our teachers and instructional resource teachers explaining the differences between the level 3 and the level 4."

In an interview last week, Overman added that another reason for the change is that it was problematic entering the 3* grade in PowerSchool. He also said that it should be easier getting a 4 grade now than before, which is the reason why the 3* grade was implemented.

Martin has asked the student achievement committee to review the grading scale, suggesting either switching back to the A-F system or if they keep 1-4, redefining 2 as proficient. It’s now listed as approaching proficiency.

Martin also questioned whether parents would understand the new report cards, particularly the individual concept grades.

For instance, Martin asked if parents would understand the explanation for the “craft and structure” big ideas grade in language arts. The guide describes it as “understanding the use of words to convey meaning and looking at the structure of the text.”

Overman said they’ll try to make the language more family friendly next year.

Martin, a chemistry professor at N.C. State, was particularly critical of the concept grades for science. An example he cited was the first-grade concept grade of “pebbles, sand and silt.”

"I actually like the art standards better for science,” Martin said. “What I see in the science standards are a content focus: compare measuring pebbles, sand and silt. I’m not sure how I get a grade on pebbles, sand and silt. Do I know what they are? Can I differentiate them, I guess?

What I would like to see in our science grading is understanding in context, like what we have with our visual arts and music. Critical response, content relevancy, science literacy. It strikes me that those would be much more observational skills.

Do I know how to measure, how to frame a problem. These are the kinds of things that we should be grading in science more than pebbles, sand and silt.”

Overman suggested that board members talk to the state Department of Public Instruction about that because the big ideas were taken from the state standards.

In an interview last week, Martin complained that board members weren’t given advance warning that the report cards were being changed by staff. He said that it was just presented at the work session as a done deal.

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The WakeEd blog is devoted to discussing and answering questions about the major issues facing the Wake County school system. WakeEd is maintained by The News & Observer's Wake schools reporter, T. Keung Hui.

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