Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Why is Coastal Unified School District Experimenting on our kids?

We were at the Back To School day at Teach Elementary today. Between the teacher's presentation from our 10-year old's teacher and the principal's presentation afterwards, a couple of things emerged that attracted attention.

The short version is this: the school district decided to continue its strange experiments on how to keep the kids in mediocrity.

Here is the slightly longer version. Last year, the middle school decided to stop offering Algebra. If one counts carefully, it means that the high achievers just lost their path to AP Calc by the end of senior year of high school. Unless summer school. The decision was apparently supported by someone in Cal Poly's Math Department. My sincere hope that the person quoted in support of this decision did not honestly understand the implications. I prefer to think of someone as ignorant rather than willfully evil.  So, "horizontal acceleration" (whatever these people mean) it is for all the kids who did not reach high school by this year. Also, too... say good bye to those UC hopes for the kids.

 But apparently, middle school is too late to do significant damage to the kids. Everyone knows, we gotta start it early... So, enter the new school year and the new set of decisions...

 Now, before going further, this is actually not about Common Core. I have serious issues with how "exposing children to multiple perspectives" is interpreted as "hey, let's teach the kids 17 ways of dividing numbers, 16 of which include props they will never see anywhere else in their life". But I actually don't mind the general idea that solving a problem about two trains moving towards each other beats 20 repeats of the 5x8 multiplication fact.

 No. What we got handed today has nothing to do with the actual Common Core, except for the fact, that the school district apparently thinks that repeating "we are switching to Common Core, therefore..." gives them the blank check to experiment in other ways.

We almost missed this in the teacher's presentation at first. She mentioned that the new grading standards do away with the standard A,B,C,D,F letter grading for academic achievement and introduce instead a 4,3,2,1 scale. Well, since I personally was graded most of my life on a very similar 5,4,3,2 scale (and turned out ok), this did not seem like a significant innovation - after all, losing a grade (1 looking like a D/F combined) is hardly an issue in a school that is supposed to train advanced students.

 Next came the explanations from the school principal. On one hand, I am thankful to him for the sufficient honesty (quite possibly inadvertent) in describing what exactly is going on with the grade scale. Had he said nothing, most people in the room would probably walk out with exactly the same thoughts on the matter. But he did describe quite honestly how the new scale works (although it is possible that he is secretly very much against it, and this is his way of alerting the parents...)

So, starting from the top... The grade of 4 is awarded for achievement one grade above grade level. The immediate comment by the principal was "We will not be awarding these because for the most part your kids will not have a chance to demonstrate achievement one grade above grade level". (gone are the days when my older one took math one grade above...)

So, since 4 is no longer really in use,  the scale now shrinks to 3,2,1.

The next step, was to explain to us what 3 really meant.  On paper, 3 is "achievement at grade level". Apparently, in the currently existing A,B,C,D,F grade scale, achievement at grade level is mapped to three letter grades: A, B and C.  This means that, when awarded based on the results of tests/graded work, a score of 3 is awarded for anything that would otherwise get 70% or above (C or above).

Which relegates 2 (developing) to map to 50-60%, and 1 (needs work) to 0-49%.

There is also something about a second scale of N,S,U,C for behavioral evaluation categories.

This is what I do not like about it. As presented to us, this is essentially a one-value grading scale. At the end of the year, every single Teach Elementary student will have a report card with all 3s.  Everyone will be an achiever! Yay! We won! Right?

Except... uhm, no!   We are essentially looking at a grading scale, where grades no longer mean anything.

At a school where a reasonable percentage of kids require help (would have routinely received Ds and Fs), this grading scale is a binary system that segregates those kids from everyone else.

At a school like Teach Elementary, I do not know what percentage of grades (trimester grades) were Ds and Fs, but I expect a VERY SMALL ONE, if any.  This means that the segregation part of the system won't work, and the grading scale turns into a one-grade one - everyone will get a 3 in everything. 

So, dear Coastal Unified School District, riddle me this: (remember - Common Core insists on developing independent reasoning skills, so let's see how you exhibit them)  if 100% achievement earns you a 3 and 70% achievement earns you a 3: what possible motivation do kids have to rise above a 70% level?   Or, to translate it into Common-Core speak: if an average mastery of a skill earns you the same grade as a perfect mastery of a skill, what possible motivation are you giving the kids to go beyond average mastery? 

(in fact,  this is something that kids understand immediately... My 15-year-old, upon learning of the new grading scheme immediately said "Now no one needs to study hard at all".)

Now, I understand the general desire to tell every kid in the class that they are doing great, and they are learning a lot. But what message is being sent to the kids who work their hearts out on schoolwork if their effort and their achievement find no recognition because the grade scale no longer allows the teachers to acknowledge that?

 No matter what everyone else is saying, remember that grades are units of information.

Grades are for teachers: teachers need to understand achievement and understanding levels of individual students, and be able to see what each of them is good at and where they could use more help.

Grades are for students: honest grades tell students how they are doing and what they need to do better.

Grades (in case of K-12 education) are for parents: we are not present in class, we do not get a play-by-play of what happened at school... grades are our snapshots and our window into what is going in the classroom, and whether what is going on in the classroom is actually benefiting our kids.

Grades are not for reporting and aggregation purposes to satisfy federal, state and district regulations and establish compliance with no child left behind acts. Some of those laws and regulations may have good intents, and are crucial to the success of public education system, but grades assigned to students for their work should not be assigned in the name of these rules and regulations. 

The one-grade scale resulting in a grade of  3 being awarded to every single student for every single subject, is extremely convenient for reporting and aggregation. It is absolutely and totally HORRIBLE as the means of giving the teachers, the students and the parents the feedback about what is going on with the education of individual students.

Therefore, it becomes really clear why this system was introduced.

The question though, remains. Why does Coastal Unified School District feel it can experiment on our kids in order to simplify their reporting?

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