Suzanne Perez Tobias

Wichita parents: Everything you know about report cards is about to change

Wichita teacher has special greeting for each of her students

Jerusha Willenborg, a third-grade teacher at Gordon Parks Academy in Wichita, starts and ends each school day by sharing a unique handshake with each of her students.
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Jerusha Willenborg, a third-grade teacher at Gordon Parks Academy in Wichita, starts and ends each school day by sharing a unique handshake with each of her students.

It’s been a few years, but I remember the afternoon my son climbed into my car in the high school parking lot and told me how he had done on that day’s English test.

He’d been struggling in the class, maintaining a solid C, and he needed a win to raise his average. He had studied hard for this test, and managed to score an 83.

But.

This teacher had a strict pens-only rule for exams and other assignments, and Jack had used a pencil by mistake.

She deducted 30 points, and he failed the test.

I was aghast. Thirty points? For writing in pencil instead of ink? It didn’t seem fair. If he knew the material, shouldn’t that be enough? But I groused privately because I didn’t want to be “that parent.”

Jack seemed surprisingly serene, acknowledging that he knew the rule and the consequences — which were more serious in the second semester — and had learned a lesson. He never used a pencil in that class again.

Those types of penalties would no longer exist under the Wichita school district’s new grading system, which is being rolled out to elementary schools this year.

The new system, called Standards-Referenced Grading, is an effort to achieve more fair and consistent grading practices by basing students’ academic grades purely on what students know and are able to do at each grade level.

That means no point deductions for blowing off homework, being late to class, talking too much or using the wrong writing implement. Behavior will be tracked in a different section of a student’s progress report.

It also means no extra points for donating canned goods at Thanksgiving or bringing extra boxes of Kleenex for the classroom. (Full disclosure: My children have taken full advantage of those extra-credit opportunities over the years.)

Wichita officials took cues from public schools in Des Moines, which implemented standards-referenced grading in 2013. Other districts call it performance-based, competency-based or mastery education, and the phenomenon is becoming popular across the country.

The new system features a zero-to-four scale to assess students’ proficiency toward dozens of specific standards, rather than general subject areas. For example, third-graders are expected to be able to “recount plots with single story lines,” a language arts standard, and “tell and write time to the nearest minute” in math.

On the new scale, zero is “failing,” one is “emerging,” two is “developing,” three is “proficient” and four is “advanced.” Three is the target.

Standards are intended to be mastered over the course of the school year, not each nine-week grading period, so parents will notice scores on progress reports may be lower in the first, second and even third quarters.

“It will be a big shift for parents, especially those parents whose students are very used to getting 4’s or A’s on their report card,” said Leslie McEntire, a third-grade teacher at Washington Elementary School in Wichita.

“During conferences I will tell them to be patient and to have an open mind. . . . It’s going to be hard for some of them at first, but if they trust the process and give it time, they will really enjoy this way of grading a lot more.”

Based on the confused looks from reporters — myself included — during an information session for media this week, the district could have a rough time explaining the new system to parents and others, who grew up under traditional grading practices.

It will get even trickier as it expands to middle- and high schools, where students and parents become laser-focused on GPAs for scholarships and college applications. Officials say they’ll create a conversion chart for secondary schools that will change scores on standards to traditional letter grades.

Despite noble intentions of fairness and equity, selling families on the new grading system — and the idea that competence means more than simple A’s on a report card — could resurrect memories of “new math” and Common Core standards.

It’s encouraging, though, that some of the new system’s most vocal advocates are teachers. McEntire, at Washington Elementary, said her third-graders are embracing the change, and she thinks parents will come along eventually.

“Think about when you’re at work — if your boss wants you to do better, and they just say, ‘Do better.’ How?” she said. “This really gives the students that ‘how,’ and it will motivate them because they see the ‘why’ behind it.”

Suzanne Perez Tobias is a columnist and member of The Eagle’s editorial board. During her nearly 30 years at the newspaper, she has covered breaking news, education, local government and other topics. An avid reader, Suzanne also oversees The Eagle’s books coverage and coordinates the annual #ReadICT Challenge. She can be reached at 316-268-6567.
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