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Making the (New) grade

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SNOQUALMIE VALLEY - Teachers, students and parents at Fall City Elementary School are part of a pilot program that will change the look of report cards.

Starting this year, parents of second-graders at the Snoqualmie Valley School District school will see report cards that contain more than the letter grades with which they grew up. Students are instead bringing home progress reports that break down each skill their instructors are trying to teach them.

Director of Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Scott Poirier said the change to the grading system came from the state's educational reform effort.

He said the standards-based grading goes beyond the traditional "A," "B," "C," "D," and "F" system by providing more information on how a student is doing is specific skill areas. And it creates uniformity between teachers whose grading systems may differ from each other.

"When you think about it, it's like a man going off a high dive. The first time he's ever done it, do you take that score and then do you take the second time and then the eighth time and average them all together?" Poirier asked. "Or do you measure what he can actually do after he has learned the skill?"

As opposed to the usual grades that indicate how a student is doing in each subject, the new grade card has a series of grids that break down each subject into individual skills, with a number grade of 1 through 4 - with 4 being the best - attributed to each skill. Under reading, for example, skills that range from "identifying letters correctly" to "demonstrating effort" are listed.

What is noticeably lacking from the grade card is an average or final grade that sums up all the numbers given. Poirier said this is intentional, since final grades are misleading because they are calculated as mere averages. Three different students may be at completely different levels in each of the skills, but they all might get the same grade in a subject because they all average out to the same number.

"I might bring home an 'A' or a 'C,' but what does that mean?" he said. "This breaks down the grade."

Poirier added the new grading system, which is starting to be used in other school districts, will meet some resistance because it goes against tradition.

"It's hard for parents because the system of letter grades, which is over 100 years old, is what they received and what their parents received," he said. "But it doesn't tell people what they need to know against any critical standard."

Although the district may be going against 100 years of traditional grading, Fall City Elementary's teachers, students and parents have embraced the new program.

"I like it," said second-grade teacher Suze Bodwell, who helped design the report card for Fall City Elementary. "It establishes the skills so the parents know exactly where they [the children] are heading with the WASL [the Washington Assessment of Student Learning]. There are all these things the kids have to know now, and it's good for parents because they'll know where their child stands."

Second-grade teacher Katie Morris said one challenge she's faced with the new report cards is overcoming the perception that meeting a standard means the student's performance is average.

"Meeting the standard is very good," Morris said. "Of course, we want to challenge our kids to go above and beyond, but meeting the standard is good. It's hard."

Fall City Elementary teachers said parents' interest in how their children are doing in school has increased with the new grade cards. Before the pilot program, students were given one of two marks that were the equivalent of "pass" or "fail," and parents asked few questions.

Since parents are now able to see exactly in which areas their children excel or need help, they want to do more to help their children succeed in school.

"I've had comments wanting a larger place [on the card] for more comments," said second-grade teacher Jan Miller. "They still want more details about how their kids are doing."

"They want to know exactly what they need to be focusing on so they can help their own child along the way," said second-grade teacher Melissa Parce.

Miller said the cards have also given students a better understanding of how they are graded.

"They can break it apart now," Miller said. "In the past, it's been mysterious. The papers go into the turn-in box, and then I take them home and this mysterious thing happens with the grade. They are part of the process now."

Poirier said the program is not yet complete. Meetings and feedback will change the new report cards over the next few years as the district plans to implement the system bit by bit.

However, the grading system will have a hard time making its way into secondary education, especially high school, until a way to demonstrate what it means to college admission offices can be devised.

Despite that obstacle, Poirier is confident the district is headed in the right direction.

"It's much more powerful than the letter grade," he said. "It just explains more."

Poirier hopes to use the new report cards districtwide for kindergarten through third grade by the 2003-2004 school year, with grades 4 and 5 using them by the 2004-2005 and 2005-2006 school years, respectively.

You can reach Ben Cape at (425) 888-2311, or e-mail him at ben.cape@valleyrecord.com.

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