, , , , , , , , , , ,

Grades Collage, January 24, 2010. (http://hopkins.typepad.com).

Montgomery County Public Schools opened its doors to students for the start of the 2012-13 school year on Monday, August 27. With the start of the school year came some new changes to the report card and grading system, at least for MCPS’ elementary schools. Starting this year, the school district has dropped the old grading system of O, S and N (Outstanding, Satisfactory and Needs Improvement) for first and second graders, and the old A, B, C, D and E system for third, fourth and fifth graders. Instead, they’ve introduced a new grading system for all 1st-5th graders:

Score Description
ES Exceptional at the grade-level standard
P Meets the grade-level standard by demonstrating proficiency of the content or processes for the measurement topic
I In progress toward meeting the grade-level standard
N Not yet making progress or making minimal progress toward meeting the grade-level standard
M Missing data – no grade recorded
NEP Not English Proficient; may be used for a level 1 or 2 ESOL student for no more than two marking periods.

According to MCPS, “[t]he goal of this grading format is to give families a clear understanding of your child’s progress toward end of year grade level expectations.”

Now, I’ve been an educator of some sort now for the better part of two decades, and have worked with several grading systems as a college professor. Not to mention having to learn different grading systems as a student even before that. Trust me when I say that this new grading system isn’t a clear one, and isn’t easy to understand.

But the overall goal is clear. MCPS wants to tie grades to their new yet only partially implemented integrated Curriculum 2.0, adopted as part of the new Core Curriculum for the state of Maryland. It is an integrated, standards-based curriculum that introduces a variety of interrelated themes across the various subjects for K-5 (although fourth and fifth grade will not see any of this curriculum until 2013, when my son is in fifth grade). In theory, this grading system will be more directly tied to students’ proficiency levels in achieving or exceeding state-level standards in reading, mathematics, writing and other subjects for their grade level.

Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? After all, if a child is proficient in say, the fourth-grade standard for reading, then they would receive a P grade. This is unreasonable, though, and for at least a couple of reasons. For one, it means the entire MCPS elementary school curriculum has become about meeting standards that will be tested at the state-level on the MSA, and at the county level on MAP-R. The curriculum itself has now become integrated into the testing game at the elementary school level.

Second, and maybe even more important here, is the idea that grading-to-a-testing-based-curriculum is a better and more accurate way to assess children. I’m not sure how this helps kids, though. If a student does well enough to score multiple “ES'” on their report card, they’ve exceeded the standard for their grade level. But this doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready for the next grade level. If a student has multiple N’s on their report card, does that mean that they have failed to meet the standards in several subjects at their grade level, that they aren’t making progress?

ESPN logo, August 29, 2012. (http://thebiglead.com). In public domain.

It seems to me that beyond understanding the grading system and the tensions in its methodology is the fact that, in the end, these grades aren’t going to mean much to MCPS’ K-5 students. Or to students across the state of Maryland, for that matter. After all, an A, C, or E is much easier to interpret than an ES, P, I or N (or ESP(i)N, as I’ll begin to call it from now on). Psychologically speaking, while this grading system takes some symbolic pressure off of performance via state and county test scores, it also means that kids won’t have a full appreciation for success, mixed success or failure beyond a curriculum of testing.

It would’ve been smarter to go to a qualitative grading system — something that I know some schools and universities have used over the years — than to this one that ties curriculum and grading systems to testing. At least with a descriptive system of grading, you can get in a single paragraph a fairly focused analysis from a teacher about a student’s progress, their strengths, weaknesses and where they’ve had good or great success. This new MCPS grading system, though, is the academic equivalent of giving every team in a children’s soccer league a trophy, whether their record was 10-0 or 0-10. It pretty much renders grading meaningless, as everything is about standards and measurements, and ultimately, testing.