Elementary kids get science grades, but no science

Science instruction is vanishing from elementary schools in Kansas and nearby states, according to a report to the Kansas Board of Education. As many as one in five elementary teachers puts science grades on report cards, but doesn’t teach the subject.

George Griffith, superintendent of a western Kansas district and a member of a committee writing new science standards, surveyed more than 900 elementary teachers in Kansas, Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Griffith said teachers responding to the survey said they reported grades in science because there was a spot on the grade card for it. But the teachers felt so pressured to increase performance in the high-stakes reading and math tests that they have cut back or eliminated class time for science.

More than 55 percent of K-6 teachers have decreased science education by 30 minutes to an hour per week, Griffith said.

ES or N? DEM or PRG?

Instead of A’s, B’s, C’s or D’s , Montgomery County, Maryland students in first through third grades will get ES, P, I or N on their report cards, explains the Washington Post. ES means “exceptional,” P means “demonstrating proficiency,” I means “in progress,” and N means “not yet making progress or making minimal progress” toward meeting standards. DEM (demonstrating), PRG (progressing) or N (not yet evident) will be given for  “effort,” “intellectual risk taking” and “originality.”

Parents are confused by the “standards-based” grading system, reports the Post. No kidding!

Students will earn an ES, P, etc. in each of several categories in each subject area. “For example, social studies is divided into “measurement topics” of civics, culture, economics, geography and history,” reports the Post.

(GreatSchools’ Samantha Brown) Olivieri said more schools across the country are moving toward standards-based report cards to align with the adoption of Common Core standards, which focus on critical thinking and other higher-order skills students are expected to have in the “real world.”

“It’s not just about what letter we’re using or the grading systems,” Olivieri said. “It’s about the information inspiring action from parents to support their kids.”

Montgomery County plans to expand the new grades to fourth and fifth grade. Other districts are following suit.

But some parents think it’s the same old system with different letters, reports the Post.

Alicia White’s daughter is a third-grader at Dr. Sally K. Ride Elementary School. . . . “For her spelling test, my daughter came home with an I, and to me, I saw it and just [said], ‘That’s a C,’?” White said.

Another parent calls the new report cards “squishy” and say parents don’t know how to use the reports to help their children do better.

Teachers will have to spend more time grading in all the sub-categories, not to mention deciding who gets a DEM, PRG or N in “intellectual risk-taking” and “originality.” (How does one evaluate a first grader’s intellectual risk-taking?) Parents will have to spend more time analyzing the report card — or , at least, translating into A, B, C, D and F grades. Is it worth it?

Permanent record: 1920’s report cards

After finding 1920s report cards and employment records from the Manhattan Trade School for Girls, Paul Lukas traced the former students to see how their lives turned out. The series on Slate includes a gallery of photos with links to reports.

Girls attended Manhattan Trade in lieu of high school, usually beginning when they were 14 or 15, and were expected to finish by the time they turned 17. The school . . . offered one- and two-year programs in a variety of disciplines, primarily in the “needle trades” (dressmaking, sewing machine operation, millinery) and, to a lesser extent, the “brush and glue trades” (sample catalog mounting, novelty box making, lampshade making). The curriculum also stressed thrift, home economics, personal presentation, and other life skills that would help the students survive in the labor marketplace.

Manhattan Trade, started by “wealthy progressives”  (“reformie” types!) in 1902, placed students in jobs for years after they left the school.

. . . the majority of the students had been born to immigrant parents—Italians, mostly, but also lots of Eastern European Jews, some Russians, and a smattering of others. Many of their families appeared to have been desperately poor, with lots of bad luck to boot. Here was a girl whose mother had ended up in an insane asylum and whose father was “paralyzed and a drunkard.” Here was one who needed dental work but couldn’t afford the dentist’s $3 fee, so the school’s secretary gave her $1.50 to have the work started. Here was one who said she had received $3.50 for three days’ work and had then been forced to leave the job because the work site was so cold “your hands almost freeze off of you.”

But there were also tales of success, triumph, and joy—stories of striving and pride, of the American Dream taking shape.

One graduate started a business making stuffed animals and toys that’s still around.

Today, girls from low-income immigrant families are urged to go to college with little guidance on what they might do there to reach their real goal, a decent job. Most will start in remedial classes, give up on a degree and work low-skilled, low-paying jobs forever.

"A Mockery of Accountability"

In New York City, public schools receive annual report cards with a grade. Most of this grade is based on test scores. Miraculously, 84 percent of elementary and middle schools in NYC received an A this year, up from 38 percent last year.

Diane Ravitch points out in today’s Daily News that this bizarre situation should come as no surprise:

The problems with the report cards were apparent from the start. When the system was launched in 2007, testing experts warned that it relied too heavily on single-year changes in standardized test scores, which are subject to random error and therefore unreliable. But the Education Department did not listen.

But surprise or no, the grades are absurd, and they leave us with nothing. Ravitch continues:

The report card system makes a mockery of accountability. No one can be held accountable when almost everyone gets an A or B. No one can tell which schools are getting better or worse. Nor do parents get enough information to make good choices.

It would be one thing if they were not taken seriously and did not affect the lives of students, teachers, parents, and administrators. But they do. Schools with low grades are threatened with closure. Students want to go to a good school and get mixed messages about the schools they attend. Parents don’t know how to reconcile the grades with the ratings given by the state. Teachers may receive bonuses (or not) based on these grades. In the meantime, Chancellor Joel Klein has asserted that there is no problem with these grades, no problem with anything, in fact.

Accountability is in a bind. On the one hand, the DoE (in NYC and elsewhere) wants to appear successful–for PR, for elections, for funding, for renown, and what have you. We have something of the Creon syndrome, where leaders do not want to admit that they are wrong, lest they cede to the populace. On the other hand, the whole purpose of an accountability system (if it has integrity) is to help us see our problems and accomplishments clearly, not to trumpet success.

But to gain such insight, we have to know what we are trying to accomplish. With dumbed-down tests, vapid literacy programs, an overwhelming focus on test prep at the exclusion of essential subjects, and unreliable rating systems, we end up taking a yardstick to a void–and declaring miracles whenever we please.

Diana Senechal