MPS ditches letter grades and doesn’t make grade

Published November 17, 2012

Milwaukee Public Schools plans to expand districtwide a pilot program in which schools ditch traditional letter grades. Instead of A, B, C, D and F, teachers will compare students to a list of things the state expects students to know on core subjects in each grade and mark their skills advanced, proficient, basic or minimal. It’s called a “standards-based report card.”

The idea has some merits and several significant flaws.

Parents and students benefit from objective, specific standards for academic performance. If a father knows Julia must learn to define a story’s theme in second grade, he can ask her to do so when they read together. Grading metrics can also help counter grade inflation, where teachers give students high marks they have not earned. A 2005 ACT study found high school grades inflated 12.5% between 1991 and 2003.

Typical A through F grading employs objective measurements such as a student’s percentage of correct and incorrect answers throughout a course: An A may denote 90% to 100% correct, a B 80%-89% correct and so on. MPS could just require teachers to return to this approach or tie it to what the state expects students to know. Parents benefit from the specificity that shows whether their child gets nearly no questions right or gets about half wrong, both of which could be considered “minimal.”

Most parents and teachers grew up with A through F grades. Why make it difficult for them? The standards could simply define an A as “the student consistently exceeds grade-level expectations,” the same as “advanced,” and so forth.

Notably, the new system does not distinguish among high-performing students. At the top end, a student either meets or exceeds expectations, but at the bottom he or she can nearly meet or fail to meet expectations. Notice how a student gets to the top half merely by meeting expectations. Way to set a high bar.

Research has shown U.S. schools already focus primarily on low-achievers, though investing in bright minds benefits everyone by identifying and training young problem-solvers the country needs.

There are a vast number of unsettled questions about the plan’s effects on teachers and students. Teachers cover much more material than the standards present, partly at their own discretion and based on their experience. Where is a mechanism to reflect how students perform in response to the other things teachers find important to teach? The new system also takes much grading out of teachers’ hands, which indicates a lack of trust in teachers and the principals who hire them.

Despite proponents’ assurances, the standards the report cards are tied to have never been tested together in any school. Some elements of the Common Core standards are hotly debated by mathematicians and literacy researchers. This includes the requirement that English teachers in upper grades emphasize informational text such as bus schedules and historical documents they have never learned to teach and experimental geometry that failed with gifted Russian students.

It’s a good idea to define exactly what grades mean and what schools expect students to learn each year. But MPS could have done that with A through F grades. This plan doesn’t make the grade.

Joy Pullmann ([email protected]) is managing editor of School Reform News and an education research fellow at The Heartland Institute.