When Molly McCormick was a full-time middle and high school English teacher, she issued grades to her students to indicate their knowledge and ability in the subject she taught. Today, in her role as a stay-at-home mother, report cards and test scores have taken on a different meaning. "I sometimes feel that my children’s success or failure in school is a reflection of myself,” she says.
McCormick, who was a good B student, admits to pushing her sons John Paul and Mark David, second and fifth grade students, to excel. “I expect more because I know what goes on within a school and I put pressure on myself to be the kind of parent I would have wanted my students to have.”
The Importance of Grades
There is concern among educators nationwide that parents may stress grades over learning, particularly in the elementary school years. “Children are often misinformed by parents as to why they are learning,” says Jim Grant, co-founder and executive director of the New Hampshire-based Society for Developmental Education. “We don’t teach our children to enjoy learning for the sake of learning. Letter grades take the joy out of it.”
In addition, by their very nature, ABC grades are competitive and may be “a way of comparing your own child with someone else’s,” adds McCormick.
This sense of competition is one factor which often enters into parents’ decisions to homeschool. Doug and Chris May have been teaching their two children, Andrew and Eva, at home for four years. They believe, “grades set up a false standard by telling a child, ‘I must be doing well if everyone else is doing less’ but that child may not be doing his or her personal best. There is a real danger of false pride for good marks or depression for poor ones.”
This opinion is seconded by Debora Serman, a professor at the Graduate School at Lesley College in Boston, Massachusetts. "The traditional letter grade system doesn’t tell anyone anything," says Serman. "It only tells you about your child in relation to the rest of the class. And paper and pencil tests measure how well a child competes on a particular test. That may or may not tell what that child is capable of doing.”
Factors Included in a Grade
According to Professor Sherman, ideally “a grade should be indicative of a child’s individual ability.”
That was the criterion 40 years ago when recently retired principal Arthur Cummings began teaching. “Letter grades were an assessment of
academic performance. Now they also indicate effort and attitude, which I think is critical, "says Cummings. "Our style and philosophy of education has changed, and report cards should reflect that.”
"What we're trying to tell parents is different today than it used to be. We need some kind of mechanism which indicates a student’s attitude, effort, and involvement. Is the child interested in what is going on? Is he performing at the best of his ability?”
Recalling her teaching days, Molly McCormick adds, “Good teachers take into account a child’s effort. They also look for a pattern. Is this kid getting better over time?”
Are A’s, B’s, and C’s the best indicators of a child’s progress in school? Grant says, “ABC’s measure a child from the neck up. They don’t measure the abilities of the whole child.” He considers letter grades an artificial assessment of a student’s competence and prefers the new trend towards portfolio assessments.
“It is so hard to factor in the variables -- the child’s state of mind, the time of year, the ability of the teacher to teach the material -- which may affect a child’s performance on any given test. A portfolio, a collection of evidence of a child’s actual performance over time, will measure a student’s progress more realistically.”
Nationwide, states are beginning to adopt portfolio assessments as the preferred method of grading. Some school systems use a student profile combining the portfolio, parent/teacher conferences, and traditional report cards. While assessments vary from school district to school district, most portfolios include a representative sampling of each student’s work from kindergarten through twelfth grade and may become a permanent part of the child's school record.
Role of the Parent
Report cards are just one indicator of a child’s progress in school. Parent/teacher conferences, personal observation and close supervision of home and school work will point out areas of weakness and strength as well.