October 1, 2008

San Mateo-Foster City School Parents Miffed By New Report Card System

By Neil Gonzales

FOSTER CITY -- A group of parents is giving failing marks to a new report card system that has been introduced in the middle schools this academic year.

Instead of the traditional letter-grade system, middle schools in the San Mateo-Foster City district are now using standards-based report cards that rank a student's grasp of a particular skill.

Parents are complaining that the standards-based system is confusing and has been brought in too quickly.

At today's district board meeting, they plan to submit a petition urging trustees to suspend the standards-based system until it can be studied and developed further with the help of a committee of parents, teachers and others.

The petition started Monday night and had drawn about 200 signatures by Tuesday afternoon.

Bringing in the standards-based system this year "was a very precipitous decision," said Danielle Picchi, a leader of the group of about 20 parents. "It was not well-thought out. Most importantly, there was no committee of middle-school teachers and parents, so we didn't get a say on how this would be implemented or to voice our concerns."

District officials say they have met with parents and teachers about the change and will continue to do so to refine the system.

"It is a different reporting system," said Joan Rosas, district assistant superintendent for student services. "Parents will need to learn how to read the report card and how to use the information. But we expect this information will give them more understanding of how their children are performing."

Districts statewide have been using standards-based report cards for several years in response to California requiring its students to be at least proficient in state-approved curriculum, San Mateo- Foster City officials said.

The district's elementary schools switched to standards-based reporting two years ago.

Instead of earning letter grades such as an A or a B, a student will get marks from 1 to 4 in various academic areas. A "1" shows that a student is performing below the standard, while a "4" means that he or she has surpassed it.

The letter system does not accurately reflect how well a student is meeting academic standards because it takes into account other elements such as behavior and class participation, district officials said.

In contrast, the standards-based system separates the academic component from other factors, they said.

"It's a way to report to parents how their children are mastering their grade-level standards," said Edward Winchester, district director of curriculum and instruction.

The standards-based report cards will continue to give student marks on those other categories such as citizenship and work habits, Winchester said. The cards also will include a place for teachers to give additional comments.

"We think over time (middle-school) parents will come to appreciate the much higher, detailed level of information they're getting," Winchester said.

Picchi agrees that standards-based reporting "can be beneficial (and) does show more information," she said.

However, parents and students remained confused about how mastery is being assessed, she said. "It's not consistent from one teacher to another or from one school to another. It's subjective depending on the teacher."

The standards-based system can also hurt student motivation, she said. For example, her son got a 100 percent on a pre-algebra test while another student missed 12 problems and they both earned a rank of 3.

"My son was upset," she said. "He worked really hard and didn't know he (could have missed 12 questions) and still get a 3."

The district did better in involving educators and parents when it launched the standards-based reporting at the elementary schools, said Christy Rauch, president of the San Mateo Elementary Teachers Association.

But with the middle schools, Rauch said, "somehow the district missed the piloting phase and didn't bring along the parents and teachers in the process."

Beatriz Johnston, an eighth-grade English language-arts and history teacher at the Bayside S.T.E.M. Academy in San Mateo, thinks that much of the problem has been technical because the standards- based system comes with learning a new computer program, she said.

"It's really annoying," Johnston said. "There's so much minutiae to navigate through."

Winchester acknowledged that there have been software glitches but said, "We think most of them have been resolved."

ReachNeil Gonzales at 650-348-4338 or [email protected]

Originally published by Neil Gonzales, San Mateo County Times.

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