Dec 202012

“Report card day” is often a stress point in the school year for kids and parents. The first report card of the year for Groton and Dunstable third and fourth graders, sent out earlier in December, was a particularly big exclamation point for many parents. Instead of familiar A-B-C-D-F letter grades, they saw a new “Standards Based Report Card” sporting new designations of M-P-I because the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District is changing the way it reports student’s progress and achievement.

Although it has been several years in the making, the change caught many parents by surprise. Some early reviews of the system weren’t glowing because many parents weren’t sure either what the schools and teachers were telling them, or how to interpret the new results. The confusion was, or will be, echoed in towns across Massachusetts as the state-wide adoption of the Common Core Standards is implemented. The Common Core Standards are a voluntary program that 47 states have adopted so far. Although the federal government has encouraged adoption by the states, it is not a national standard or program.

Where did Common Core Standards Come From?

The Common Core State Standards Initiative is a not a federal government standard. It is a state-led initiative 20+ years in the making that will “… provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them. The standards are designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers” according to the organization’s web site.

The initiative was started and sponsored by the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). It has picked up additional support from private organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and other foundations and groups.

That effort led to the Common Core Standards themselves, which 47 states have adopted. The standards and the initiative got a big boost in 2009, when President Barack Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan launched Race to the Top, a multi-billion dollar United States Department of Education effort to foster innovation and develop reforms in state and local district K-12 education.

Massachusetts was one of 12 winning states in the 2012 national Race to the Top competition, which means federal dollars to fund schools. One of the key components of the state’s entry was movement and change in standards and assessments. One result of that is state-wide adoption by local districts of the Common Core Standards and tools that support them — the new elementary grade reports cards in the Groton-Dunstable Regional School District.

Massachusetts also chose to raise its own state-wide standards bar a bit higher.

“Not taking away from any of the Common Core, but because Massachusetts is a high-performing state, it added fifteen percent, so we have the Common Core plus some,” district Director of Teaching, Learning & Accountability Kerry Clery said.

Traditional letter-grade report cards are usually based on the average achievement of a class in a subject, and show where a student places within that group based on material that has already been taught. The new report cards are geared to show the level of work a student should be capable of at the end of a school year (from the Common Core Standards) and the progress they are making toward that level. It is more of a snapshot of progress than a record of achievement on past studies. On the new report cards, “M” indicates the student meets the end-of-the-year standard; “P” means he or she is making satisfactory progress towards meeting the standard, and “I” means the student is making insufficient progress toward the standard.

Why did the Common Core Standards make switching to standards based report cards important? In a word, “accuracy.”

Kerry Clery

Kerry Clery, Director of Teaching, Learning & Accountability

“The way we’re teaching is very standards based and the report cards simply were not matching what we were doing in the classroom,” district Director of Teaching, Learning & Accountability Kerry Clery said. Clery started work in July, concentrating on pre-K to 8 until Superintendent Tony Bent, who also started work in July, expanded her scope to all grades.

“In addition, the information that was compiled to create an average for report cards was very inconsistent from one classroom to another. It’s important to establish consistency both horizontally, between, say, the elementary schools and between grade levels in each school, and vertically as well, from pre-K through grade 12. Again, it has to do with our focus on teaching to very specific standards in isolation and then connecting them all together. So when the two weren’t matching, the teachers had a difficult time with report cards and reporting out accurate information,” she said.

In previous years, there was a change between second and third grades in the way achievement was reported. Below and in second grade, students did not receive letter grades; that started in third grade. This year, third and fourth graders did not receive letter grades because of the switch to standards-based reporting. The change has only been rolled out in those two grades.

“Looking at the big picture, eventually we would like — eventually and carefully — to move them into the middle school,” Clery said. “Beyond that, we have no plans whatsoever to move them into the high school — I know that is one of the misconceptions out there, that they’re going to the high school. It’s not even on our radar at all.” A date to roll out the change in the middle school has not been set, and probably won’t be until after a new superintendent is hired early in 2013 and starts work. School committee members recently said Middle School standards based reporting is not planned for the next school year.

The roots of the new report cards are more than a year old.

“Last year, the district started a working group lead by Liz Medley, the assistant principal at Florence Roche. That group of administrators and teachers came together to look at report cards. I know that the committee last year was certainly communicating to the staff. They did a presentation to the school committee, saying this is coming down the pike. So they worked to be transparent about the process, but they didn’t have the documents yet to share with people at that time. They were working on it at the end of the year and over the summer,” Clery said. The plan was finished and implemented after Clery and Bent were hired this summer.

“It’s a major mind shift for parents,” Clery said.

A presentation on the switch was part of each elementary school’s Parent’s Night and can be downloaded here. The plan was also explained as part of two School Committee meetings.

“It’s a major mind shift for parents,” Clery said, “Because they have been so conditioned to needing that cumulative average each quarter or trimester. When you’re looking for that and then receive this kind of report card, it feels as if there’s a huge vacancy in terms of the information. However, as we continue to educate parents and they see that this is to show where this child is with very specific information and criteria at the end of each trimester, and they’re able to let go of the average and look at what information it does provide, we believe that this will be a much better communications tool to help student success.”

Refining the curriculum and the report cards is an on-going process, she said. “We’re gong to so a survey at the end of the second trimester and again at the end of the school year,” to gather feedback, she said.

John Joyce felt strongly enough about the change in the grading system that he started an online petition in opposition to it and posted a notice on the Talk About Groton email list. When this article was published, on December 20, it had 76 signatures. The petition is hosted at Joyce did not reply to an email requesting an interview about the petition.