Report Card Redux

The quest for better ways to communicate what students know means abandoning jargon for dots, dashes, even X's and O's by Howard Libit
Some use slashes and checks, X's and O's. Others tell the story using E, S and NS. And while A, B, C, D and F have worked just fine for traditionalists, many are just now rediscovering those basic letters

Schools, districts and states across the nation are scrambling to find ways to illustrate how they and their students are doing. In the process, they are creating a dizzying array of report cards on everything from individual student progress to comparisons of schools, districts and states. Few wind up looking alike.

For most, the efforts to create new report cards are driven by the push for tougher academic standards. When a state or a school district creates new benchmarks for student performance, a brand new form is immediately needed to tell the results.

But educators across the country also say they're trying harder than ever to do a better job of communicating with parents and the public. That means setting aside comfortable jargon and finding a new vocabulary that can be easily understood by non-educators.

Sacred Cows
The bottom line, say those who have undertaken report card revisions in the past few years, is that making a new report card is never easy, regardless of whether it's intended to grade kindergartners or entire school systems.

"Report cards tend to be sacred cows," says George Wetzel, who recently retired after 31 years in the Corpus Christi, Texas, Independent School District. "When you start talking about making revisions, people start getting worried."

So about three years ago, when Corpus Christi administrators decided it was time to create a set of new report cards for kindergarten through 12th grade, they knew they had a big task on their hands.

In 1993, the district, which has 42,000 students in five high schools, 12 middle schools and 40 elementaries, started rewriting its academic standards. Dozens of benchmarks on student progress were created for every grade level, bringing the district's standards in line with those approved for use throughout Texas. Then it came time to create the new student report cards.

First, a committee was appointed, and Wetzel, who was planning to retire from his job as assistant superintendent, was charged with overseeing the effort. Teachers, school administrators and parents were all involved, and they quickly decided it was critical to keep the standard measure that Texas requires for student progress: numerical scores for grades. If students do not achieve at least a 70, they don't pass.

The big change was the decision to start breaking out the standards on the report cards. But the challenge was to find a way to specify standards without making things too complicated for parents and without creating too much additional paperwork for teachers. What Corpus Christi ended up with was one of the most comprehensive report cards in the nation.

Broken down by grade levels--1-3, 4-5, 6-8 and 9-12--the backs of the report cards list the skills that students are expected to achieve. Now, for each subject area, there are as many as 15 standards in which teachers must report whether students have achieved the performance standard, are making progress toward the standard or failed to meet the standard.

For example, students in Corpus Christi's high school English III class must be able to meet seven standards:

  • Write a coherent expository essay;

  • Write within a 45-minute period a coherent expository essay;

  • Conduct research;

  • Read a variety of prose and poetry;

  • Analyze a given literary work;

  • Analyze a given nonfictional work; and

  • Prepare a coherent oral presentation.

    Similar sets of standards are listed on the back of Corpus Christi’s high school report cards for other English classes, as well as math, science, history and economics courses.

    To ease the burden on teachers, a skill once successfully completed must only be recorded a single time. After that, the skill automatically shows up as having been achieved for the rest of the year.

    "We spent hours and hours working on the wording of those standards, trying to make them as clear as possible to parents," Wetzel says. "The whole point of the report card is to be a tool to communicate with parents how their children are doing, and it doesn't do that very well if they can't understand what the standards mean."

    Most educators involved in revising report cards say that making them understandable to parents and the public--while adding to their value in the hands of teachers and administrators--is their top priority these days.

  • Self-Grading
    It's at times uncomfortable for central-office personnel to compile statistics and other information knowing that the data will be used unfairly to compare one school system to the next by the news media, real estate firms and opportunistic critics of public education. But providing such details is now an expectation in the late 1990s, driven by the Internet’s immediate access to almost unlimited information about anything.

    Families looking to buy homes want to contrast school systems and individual schools when they're choosing neighborhoods. Company executives looking to relocate business headquarters or pick sites for expansion want to be able to assess one state against the next, too. Public schools may use favorable statistics to persuade parents not to turn to private schools or charter schools.

    The push to issue school and district report cards has been given an extra prod by other organizations that are more than willing to grade schools. For example, across the country, many major metropolitan newspapers--including The Seattle Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer--annually publish student test results, and some have created their own miniature reports. Even the widely respected trade newspaper Education Week has taken to issuing annual grades to every state on such categories as teacher quality and classroom atmosphere.

    So many educators at the local level say it's now time they get into the act to issue their own grades on how their schools are doing. The flourishing use of commercially prepared tests and statewide competency measures today yields plenty of data on which to build comparative reports.

    "We don't do a very good job of assessing how well innovations we apply are working, and we certainly don't do a good job of translating that for people," says Roy Rummler, superintendent of the Bonner County schools in Sandpoint, Idaho. "We need to be more aggressive in telling people how we're doing."

    In Bonner County, the business community has helped organize a citizens group advocating for quality education, Rummler says, "and they're looking for measurements to justify the investment that the community is making in the schools."

    The group even took out a two-page advertisement in the local newspaper, laying out some specific goals for the local schools: attendance, discipline, SAT scores.

    So Rummler's school district now takes out its own advertisements each year. "We publish an annual report, saying how we do," he says. "But for all of the data that we publish, I think the community wants more and more. Everybody wants as much information as possible, and we need to give it to them."

    Fickle Nature
    For individual report cards, parents want to know specifically how their children are doing, and they don't want to have to pull out encyclopedia-like user manuals to interpret their performance each quarter. Are their children on grade level? What is it they know and what haven’t they mastered?

    Teachers also want report cards to tell them specifically what students learned in their previous classes, and policymakers want enough information to decide whether schools, districts and states are making adequate progress toward improving achievement. It's not enough to know whether children who transfer into a school were at grade level at their previous school if the teachers don't know what the grade-level standard was.

    That was the source of conflict over the 1st- and 2nd-grade report cards in Howard County, Md., a middle-class suburban school system of about 38,000 students located halfway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

    In 1990, the school system created a report card that asked teachers to assess pupils' performances in such subjects as math, communication and art on a scale of 1 to 5. That report card was replaced in 1993 with a series of dots, slashes and X's to signify whether students performed tasks independently, with assistance or not at all.

    But three years later, Howard County administrators changed the 1st- and 2nd-grade report card yet again. This time, the symbols were replaced with letters, though not the traditional letter grades. Students were judged as "I" for performing tasks independently and "W" for performing tasks with assistance, and they also assessed math as being above, at or below grade level (though below grade level was replaced with the euphemism "working toward").

    This time, the school board members said they had seen enough. They were particularly perplexed by how beginning readers would be assessed by teachers using such terms as "emergent," "early 1" and "fluent"--complicated reading terms tied to the developmental stages in the school system's reading curriculum. While district administrators said the terms correspond to the way teachers view reading instruction, school board members and parents said they were tired of having to use a reference manual to decipher how children were performing.

    "I can't understand why it has to be so complicated," board member Karen Campbell complained at the time. "Simple is simple."

    So the school board sent the district's report card committee back to work, instructing them to make some revisions. Now the report card uses the same grade-level assessments in both reading and math, and the Howard County elementary school community seems satisfied--at least until the next revision.

    Tense Moments
    But the report cards of Howard County and its neighboring school systems in the Baltimore area illustrate yet another peculiarity facing educators: Few report cards are the same. Even when school systems are working under the same state standards and mandates, they still prefer to develop their own tools to report on student achievement.

    Over the past three years, three of Howard County's large neighboring school systems--Baltimore County, Anne Arundel County and Carroll County--have revised their own report cards. While all moved to simplify, none did it the same way. Some liked saying whether students are reading on grade level, while others preferred using such terms as "emergent" and "independent."

    "Every school system seems to think that every few years it needs to redo its report cards," said Ronald S. Thomas, executive director for student accountability for the 106,000-student Baltimore County school system. "Report cards are just that way."

    If there's a consistency to making report card revisions, it's that such changes always lead to emotional confrontations.

    For example, in suburban Seattle, tensions in the Federal Way School District grew so heated this year over revising the report card used in its 23 elementary schools that a mediator ended up having to be hired.

    In 1997-98, the school district had shifted from letter grades to numbers to assess student performance. But the typical report card had expanded to five pages, far too complicated for most parents and teachers.

    A year later, efforts to revise that report card, guided by a 50-member committee, hit snags when parents and educators couldn't agree. The school district decided to spend more than $6,000 on a mediator to smooth over differences and help negotiate where the system should go with its report cards.

    Stakeholder Input
    Most report card revisions are far less contentious. In large part, it's because superintendents and other top administrators say changing report cards can't be a top-down process. They recognize that even considering the idea of making changes requires wide-ranging discussions, and any report card committee ought to include a lot of people. It means that the process will take more time and be more complicated than if a couple of principals sat in a room and drew up the changes themselves, but it produces a lot less stress and confusion later on.

    "We had discussions with a lot of people," recalls Dave Smette, superintendent in Menomonie, Wis. "We tried not to leave anyone out, and that helped a lot."

    Smette's 3,400-student district revised its student report cards two years ago, putting in place for the 1998-99 school year two-page elementary school report cards that differ by grade. Every student is judged on social skills and work habits, such as "obeys school rules" and "listens attentively." But in reading, math and other subjects, students are judged based on their grade level.

    For example, while 1st graders' report cards seek to know whether they "apply phonetic skills," 3rd graders should be able to "understand synonyms, antonyms and homophones." Some areas have no age limits, such as whether students "initiate independent reading."

    "We took some time to identify what the skills and competencies should be for each grade level, and then we created a report card around that," Smette says. "Now, parents are told directly what their children can do and what they can't."

    Similarly, when the Leon County School District began revising the report cards for its 24 elementaries in Tallahassee, Fla., two of the key elements were performance standards and broad support, according to Paul W. Felsch, program manager in student assessment. "We definitely needed to ask teachers, administrators and parents to be involved," he says. "They're the ones who use it, so they're the ones who need to be involved in making the changes."

    Many of the changes in Leon County's new report cards were derived from Florida's Sunshine State Standards. "We have these standards that are driving instruction, so they should drive what happens on the report cards, too," he says.

    A Major Gaffe
    Few school systems are willing to change much beyond elementary schools. Most educators say that while younger students can be judged on skills, it's hard to move away from the traditional letter grades of high school, particularly because it's the preferred way that most colleges and universities look at applicants.

    "I think it would be a good idea to look at high schools, but the sentiment isn't there," says Smette, the Menomonie, Wis., superintendent. "Parents and teachers are really tied to tradition there."

    No matter how much work goes in to creating new report cards, mixups are bound to happen. Some teachers may use the wrong forms. With new report cards, it may take a little longer than usual to get everything completed and sent home on time.

    But few school systems can top what happened in Corpus Christi, Texas, when it began issuing its report cards in 1998.

    The new report cards coincided with a shift that the school district made in technology, including a customized $1.5 million computer system. The new system allowed school leaders to print out all report cards centrally, listing every standard that the school district had put in place. Except for one problem: The new report cards that came out in midyear were wrong. Students reported errors in attendance, grades and grade-point averages--a frustrating way to complete the first semester, particularly just as high school seniors were rushing to send off their grades to college admissions departments.

    "It wasn't the best way to kick off a new report card," admits Wetzel, the administrator who oversaw the new report cards. "But I think we got the bugs worked out pretty quickly, and now people are starting to like it."

    Howard Libit is an education reporter for The Baltimore Sun. E-mail: howard.libit@baltsun.com