Rosenfeld: Do report cards evaluate students effectively?

Developing a more comprehensive report card would help

Developing a more comprehensive report card would help raise test scores by improving how parents, teachers and administrators understand the needs and abilities of each student. (Credit: Paul Tong/Tribune Media Services)

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Albany is focused on teacher evaluations at the same moment that, across the state, children are bringing home their final report cards. Do these reports represent the best way to evaluate students?

Since the 1983 publication of "A Nation at Risk" by President Ronald Reagan's Commission on Excellence in Education, the United States has struggled to determine an accurate measure for success in the classroom. The report led to an emphasis on standardized testing that ultimately migrated to report cards. Most schools around the country have changed from a cumulative report card, with an A-through-F or 0-to-100 range, to reports that use a 1-to-4 scale and concentrate primarily on skills children need to pass state exams -- called a "standards-based" approach in education circles.

Such report cards can now be found all over New York, including Long Island, Westchester and the five boroughs.


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You don't need an A in math to realize that 1 to 4 isn't a very wide scale. When a student goes from an 81 percent to an 87 percent, she knows she's improving. But both an 81 and an 87 translate to a 3 in the current system -- giving the child and her parents no sense of progress.

"The range is so narrow it doesn't really give an understanding of how the student must perform," says Georges Fouron, who heads the Professional Education Program at Stony Brook University. "If one student has a 2 and another student has a 3, what does it mean?"

Karen Holzer of Melville, who has two children in the Half Hollow Hills school district, agrees. "It's very ambiguous," she says. "If you don't have the teacher interpreting it on an individualized basis, there's nothing you can learn from it."

Ken O'Connor, author of "How to Grade for Learning," is against overall subject grades for children below grade 11, preferring standards-based grading, but admits that adding more levels to the range is worth debating. "I don't think there's a magic number of levels," he says, though he cautioned against having "more than seven or eight."

But it isn't necessary to choose between a 1-to-4, standards-based approach that leaves many parents confused and a cumulative grade that doesn't address how a student is meeting specific goals.

Relying solely on a standards-based system can discourage competition and achievement. As a tutor, I frequently hear from parents about schools that seem to dissuade teachers from giving out 4s in the first quarter because they feel it makes it appear as if the child has nothing more to learn. Jodi Modell of Woodbury was once told by a teacher that her son had received a 3 instead of a 4 for this reason.

Yet concentrating solely on overall achievement and not on specific needs is also unhelpful.

Despite all the attention given to standardized testing in recent years, the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress report revealed that only 35 percent of eighth-graders nationwide are proficient in math, and only 34 percent in reading. Developing a more comprehensive report card is one tool to help raise these scores by improving how parents, teachers and administrators understand the needs and abilities of each student.

Here's one way to do it:

Report cards for grades 1 through 12 could include an overall subject grade on a 0-to-100 scale, and a subsection for a standards-based analysis covering the various facets of the subject. The scale could break down to a 1 for "no understanding," a 2 for "poor understanding," a 3 for "approaching proficiency," a 4 for "proficient," and a 5 for "advanced." Additional comments from the teacher should also be included.

Such a report would allow teachers to be more expressive -- and give parents a greater ability to help their children. The overall grade for subject areas would be motivating, too. Even the student who gets a 96 still has something to strive for: a 97 . . . or 100. Right now, it's all just 4s.

Ross Rosenfeld of Lynbrook is a former New York City English teacher and the founder of Ross Tutoring.

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