It’s the skills, stupid

Standards-based report cards tell students how well they’ve mastered specific academic skills, such as “decoding strategies” or “number sense and operations,” reports the New York Times.

Students aren’t compared against each other; they get no extra credit for doing homework or turning in special projects. It’s all about whether they’ve mastered the skills.

In Pelham, the second-grade report card includes 39 separate skill scores — 10 each in math and language arts, 2 each in science and social studies, and a total of 15 in art, music, physical education, technology and “learning behaviors” — engagement, respect, responsibility, organization. The report card itself is one page, but it comes with a 14-page guide explaining the different skills and the scoring.

Dennis Lauro, Pelham’s superintendent, said that standards-based report cards helped students chart their own courses for improvement; as part of the process, they each develop individual goals, which are discussed with teachers and parents, and assemble portfolios of work.

Some parents complain that the system is confusing: Schools typically use numbers rather than letter grades and there’s a lot more on the report card. Others want their children to get credit for hard work, even if it isn’t reflected in mastery of skills.

About Joanne


  1. Our district uses a similar format for report cards, and I’ve always assumed all CA districts are similar. I’ve found this type of report card very helpful in parent/teacher conferences. When we see an assessment that came out below grade level it prompts my wife and I to ask questions on how we can help. Our teachers have always been able to give us a good sense of what help was needed. One point of confusion has been that the assessments don’t necessarily incorporate the idea of progress. In other words, the assessments are geared towards end of year goals and not necessarily a goal that should be achieved part way through the year.

  2. Much harder to implement in high school. Algebra 1 has 25 standards, for example, and not every student takes Algebra 1 in a given grading period.

  3. I commend the school for trying to improve their (outdated?) grading system. I do understand the confusion of parents, though feel that the system will take time to get used to, and will hopefully improve with time.

    “Others want their children to get credit for hard work, even if it isn’t reflected in mastery of skills.” I find this especially interesting. I think that for young children, it is incredibly important to reward effort. It is also important, as those children age, to take a more realistic approach, and place more importance on actual learning/understanding. Perhaps two separate grades should be given to youngsters: one for effort, and one of competence.

  4. Our experience in California schools with the standards based report cards has not been positive. My kids’ school has decided that there are maximum scores that kids can receive each grading period. For example, on the 1-5 scale, a child cannot receive higher than a 3 in October, cannot receive higher than a 4 in March, and there is no info given on what is required for a five.

    My oldest (in fifth grade) reads at a high school level. She has since the beginnning of third grade. Her score is generally given as X is the end of year standard, she is at 3X and her grade is dependent on the calendar.

    There is a serious conflict of interest inherent in these types of report cards. The teachers want/need to show that kids have learned over the course of the year. If they give accurate scores to the high performing kids, then those kids show no progress. If there is maximum score for each marking period, then even the high kids will show progress, whether or not any progress has been made.

  5. Hi Joanne,

    Interesting concept. I like the fact that they are not graded competitively. It’s more important that a student actually learns a skill; that it was education is supposed to be about.

    Thanks for sharing your insight.


  6. Jane,

    I’ve seen 5’s in October. Did you get to see the assessments the scores were based on? Our teachers have always provided that information whenever we asked.

  7. Andromeda says:

    It’s an interesting idea, but I can’t imagine the recordkeeping required on the teacher’s part; I don’t think I could have kept up with it even with my small classes. I wonder how many of those grades are kind of pulled out of thin air.

  8. Andromeda,

    If a school is assessing students on a continuing basis and recording the results the report card is a simple computer generated result. It seems to me that type of behavior can only help to improve student performance.

  9. PM,

    I saw the assessments. The scores do not correspond to the results of the assessments.

    When my daughter was in third grade, the teacher told us that all the teachers in that school had decided that no one could get higher than a 3 in October, a 4 in March. It was never made clear what was required for a 5.

    When my daughter was in fourth grade, at the March conference, we asked what was necessary for a 5. The teacher told us that if my daughter had the same scores in May that she had in March, she would receive 5s.

    In fifth grade, we looked at the assessment that said XX is required for a 5. My daughter had a score that was 2XX. She got a 4.

    One bad side effect of this grading system is that we now know the school will lie to us if the truth is inconvenient. We don’t trust them. It is sad.

  10. Jane,

    Sounds like your school is not using the grading system correctly. Just one more example of how any system can be subverted.

  11. PM,

    I guess my point is that this system is very easily subverted and subject to conflict of interest. At least with the old system, anyone could look at the grading scale and have a conversation with child or teacher…

    You got XX percent of the work done correctly, that translated into Y grade. There isn’t as strong an incentive to put down erroneous grades.

    Out in Left Field had some blog entries about this type of grading system last year as well.

  12. Jane,

    The way your school is implementing the system would put me off as well.

  13. The real problem with Jane’s child is that the school is not teaching her. Fiddling with the grades is just an attempt to cover up.