eleven.jpgThe NY Times reported last week that some of the area school districts are switching to report cards that document student progress with numbers rather than with the old-fashioned (and apparently dreadfully imprecise) letter-grade system. Now a student will get 2,3,4 on her report card, instead of C, B, A ; the new system, which is called a “standards-based” system is supposed to be clearer, more objective, and will somehow cure all that ails the public school systems.

Okay, that last part is an exaggeration – no one quoted in the article says that the new report cards will cure the system. They do say, however, that these report cards will help students chart their progress more clearly. A professor in Kentucky (a state that we all associate with academic excellence, of course), who is cited in the article (and has written a book about this new system) claims that the new approach is more accurate because it’s based on a stated set of criteria, not on a curve.

Can we take a step back here? Are the letter grades really the problem? Seems to me that if I want to grade on a curve, I can do so, regardless of whether I use 4s, 5s, and 3s; or Bs, Cs, and As – or gold stars, Elmo stickers, and rocks. 

As for “standards-based” – do the proponents of this system really mean to imply that everything prior to this moment has been simply a version of throwing-shit-to-the-wall-and-seeing-what-sticks? Do these “educators” really think that only with numbers there can be standards? And who, in this post-AIG, post-Lehman Brothers, post-credit-swap-defaults world, really thinks that numbers are any more or less subjective than anything else, or any less subject to manipulation? And, for that matter, what the hell is the difference between an “educator” and a “teacher”?

Last time I checked, learning (which is not the same as memorizing) doesn’t happen on a tidy curve or bar graph, as much as we might wish it did. Don’t any of us remember that sudden “aha!” moment when words unlocked on a page, or division made sense (never did, for some of us), or we figured out what the subjunctive was (I was in my mid-twenties, much to my mother’s chagrin)? Those moments didn’t happen in step with others in the class, or even (unfortunately) in time for the test.

Another “educator” cited in this article, the principal of an elementary school in Illinois, said the standards-based report cards can give parents a sense of their child’s “actual achievement” without “clouding the issue with how often they turned in homework or participated in class.” Right. Because stupid stuff like learning how to talk in class, or keep track of homework – has nothing to do with how well a student might succeed in secondary school, or college.  I thought that one of the lessons kids were supposed to be learning in elementary school is how to raise their hands in class, talk in front of a group, and keep track of their own little paper trails. So if that’s not part of second-grade achievement, then what is?

In Pelham, the second-grade report card comes with a FOURTEEN PAGE guide to the standards being measured. For your seven-year-old’s report card. Begging the question of why a seven-year-old needs a report card in the first place – (Sammy uses a pencil. Can spell name and other important words, like “pokemon,” “gameboy,” and “Yankees.” Doesn’t hit other kids too frequently. Can sit still for more than ten minutes) – does anyone else think that our attempts to chart learning the same way we chart widget production might be misplaced?

The Pelham guide offers a list of all the rubrics used for grading in every subject: a 4 means that you did things “with distinction” (surely not a second-grade word?) and a 1 means you “haven’t yet developed” that particular skill. They even has rubrics for art, music, and gym. In gym, to get a 4, one must be able to “demonstrate all locomoter and manipulative skills with fluidity and ease,” a definition that immediately would have put a 4 out of my grasp until about the same time as I understood the subjunctive.

A 4 or an A? Aren’t we really debating semantics here – and perhaps cushioning parents from the disappointment of seeing a C on their precious darling genius’s report card? What if we simply developed an unwieldy, badly written standards guide that correlated to letter grades? Would that make everyone happy?

Yes, of course we need standards, and we need to see our children progress, but this system? It’s as if the entire thing were devised by Nigel Tufnel, who realized that if he put an 11 on his amplifier dial, he could go “one louder” than 10. When asked if he couldn’t simply make 10 louder, he shook his head and pointed again to the dial.

“These go to eleven,” he said.

4 or A? 10 or 11?

Once again, life imitates art.
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