New MCPS Report Cards –Good Ideas, Sign of the Times, Room for Improvement by Phil Piety

Written by: Philip Piety

Sometimes education seems like the place where good ideas do not come to die, but rather to find out how complex the problems they are trying to solve really are.  One they run into the difficult realities of educational practice they rarely die quickly even if their authors hope they do.  The new Montgomery County Public School (MCPS) report cards featuring  the letters I for “in progress”, P for “proficient,” and ES for “exceeds standards” is another great idea that is based on a sound logic, but that has run into difficult implementation. I actually don’t think the new MCPS report cards should die, but neither do I think they should live on in their current form.

The design of these new report cards is based on what is called standards-based grading (SBG) where the information delivered to parents is about what the students know or don’t know based on the standards they are to be taught to. Historically letter grades have been considered too broad to be useful in diagnosing problems with learning.  A student receives a B, but what is it that he or she needs to learn to make an A?  Traditional grades are also known to be subjective.  A student may have mastered the content, but didn’t look like they were learning or have the attitude the teacher wanted could get a B while another student who didn’t show as much achievement but made tremendous efforts could get an A.  Research has shown that traditional grading practices vary from teacher to teacher.  Many teachers communicate much more than achievement through traditional grades and SBG is an effort to standardize grading around what students should be learning.

I think SBG is a good idea and MCPS’s use of it admirable.  As a parent of kids in MCPS, however, I have found the results less than useful.  I find what Washington Post Education Writer Donna St. George called the Plethora of Ps difficult to use.  I have found it difficult to match the proficiency mark in one area difficult to reconcile with other parts of the report card and what we see coming home.   After two years of experience with this new SBG report card and hearing many stories of frustration from other parents, I can see four issues that are worth considering.

  1. Producing proficiency (Ps) is now considered a primary responsibility of a teacher.  This focus on standards proficiency is the result of the standards-based accountability that has been going on since before No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  While many educators think this is over emphasized in comparison to other areas of social and emotional development, the reality today is that proficiency counts.  In the past many teachers felt that grades should be distributed across the different letters with a certain percentage getting As and another percentage Bs, etc.  Many teachers then distributed grades accordingly and sometimes the reason a student got one grade versus another seemed arbitrary yo fit that pattern.  In today’s climate there is belief that a teacher’s job is to get all kids to academic proficiency and so for many a report card that has many Ps in it shows teachers did their job. This means in the world of educators and teachers there is a built-in implicit incentive to produce Ps.
  2. There are disconnected data points.  One of the biggest problems with the MCPS SBG approach is that standards in the report card are presented without some important context.  In the area of elementary math, for example, there are many many standards shown and each is given an individual evaluation.  However, the way the new CCSS math standards are designed is around what are called “learning trajectories” that string different standards together into these sequences of proficiency.  These areas, such as “Number and Operations in Base Ten” have many individual standards across multiple grades.  The MCPS report cards read like an inventory of the standards that are intended to be taught at a given grade (ex: grade 3) and don’t show the larger trajectories with related standards at lower/higher grades.  In reality many students can perform in areas outside of their assigned grades.  Including this multi-grade context (with a meaningful graphic representation) will probably help everyone make sense out of the data points.  Without some better information organization, parents see an ocean of P’s, I’s, and rarely ES’s, but the overall picture of learning is lost.In addition, most of the standards in the MCPS report cards are summary standards that are actually composed of many more detailed sub-standards.  For example, a fourth grade standard to “understand place value” is defined as three different kinds of understandings and to know whether a student actually has mastered one of these sub-standards would usually require multiple tasks.  So each I on a report card should be represented by Is, Ps, and/or ESs on the sub-standards.
  3. The new report cards dropped important information that was valuable for parents and students.  The shift from traditional to SBG seems to have been abrupt and important teacher comments and other information that would help parents understand the classroom environment and how they child is doing omitted.  Even if that “legacy” information can be replaced in the future, phasing it out slowly and giving parents a chance to learn how to use the new report cards is probably a good idea.
  4. SBG reports can still be subjective.  While the shift from traditional letter grades to SBG is intended to put the focus on what students have actually learned as opposed to teacher perceptions, the reality is that the much of this assessment of achievement is still largely subjective.  The tools MCPS uses such as MAP-R and MAP-M do not produce detailed analysis by standard of what students know or don’t know.  Until we reach a point where every score from I to P to ES (or whatever other coding system is used) can be backed up by examples of student work and where students can achieve a P or ES by multiple means then these report cards are not much better than traditional letter grades, although they can give the impression that they are.  Because there is no mark for “uncertain” there may be cases where when teachers are in doubt they assign a P or an I rather than indicate the true assessment of not sure, which adds to the confusion parents are experiencing.

In summary, the new MCPS report cards are based on a good idea of SBG or standards-based grading that is intended to shift the focus on what students have learned rather than a subjective evaluation of the teacher. In reality, they don’t quite achieve that goal yet. They are like many ideas to improve education—including evaluating teachers based on how much students learn (value added modeling) or holding school accountable for making sure that no child is left behind—that seem quite reasonable at first, but are much more complex and difficult to do well in practice.    MCPS intentions should be commended for being out in front of this effort and trying SBG well before the rest of the country.  At the same time, being on the bleeding edge when there is so little research and a big learning curve for parents and educators alike is risky.  Focusing on how to improve this area should be a priority for both the school system and parents who should make their information needs known. Without some advocacy for better information in the future, the next several years may see parents continuing to struggle to make good use of the reports that come home.

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