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APS Ditching Grading System; District Restructuring Scores To Reflect State Standards

By Russell Contreras
Journal Staff Writer
    Good news: In the near future, no Albuquerque elementary or middle school student will get an "F" on a report card.
    Bad news: No elementary or middle school student will get an "A," either.
    That's because Albuquerque elementary and middle schools are throwing out the old familiar grades.
    Albuquerque Public Schools is following a growing trend of scrapping traditional grading systems for one that measures No Child Left Behind Act proficiency levels.
    Within a few years, A's, B's, C's, D's, and F's will be history on Albuquerque elementary and middle school report cards. In their place will be a new system of "performance levels"— emerging, nearing proficient, proficient and advanced— that evaluates students against New Mexico education standards.
    APS officials say this new system is necessary in a No Child Left Behind environment. Because the federal law requires annual testing on state standards, they say the new grading shows how well students are learning those standards so they will do well on tests.
    "The traditional report card doesn't meet our needs anymore in New Mexico," says Denise Brigman, principal of John Baker Elementary. "This is a better tool for teachers to communicate to parents how well students are learning."
    Some parents say all it's doing is promoting mediocrity. They say the system is confusing and discourages students from trying hard because getting a "P" for proficient means merely learning the basics.
    "Under this new system, sure, no child will be left behind," says Teresa Sanchez, parent of a Double Eagle fourth-grader. "But no child will move ahead."
    APS isn't alone. Districts in California, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Maryland also have switched from a traditional grading system in elementary and middle schools to align student report cards with state standards.
    Each district has its own methods of measuring students. Each change has caused confusion among parents.
    In Albuquerque, about 20 schools are using the new system, which will be adopted districtwide by 2007.
    The new grading works like this: Every trimester, parents will receive a "Standards Based Progress Report" detailing how their child is doing in each subject and on the state standards in those subjects.
    For example, if a fourth-grade teacher determines that a student understands the math standard "number sense and operations," that student will receive a "P" for proficient for that standard. If the teacher feels the fourth-grader isn't getting it, the teacher will assign a "NP" for nearing proficient or "EM" for emerging.
    The teacher also will say which aspect of the standard, like fractions or multiplication, the student is struggling with.
    "Proficient" is defined as a student who "consistently demonstrates proficiency in meeting grade level standards."
    Superintendent Elizabeth Everitt said that after New Mexico adopted educational standards in 2000, APS started studying how districts in other states were changing their report cards.
    After No Child was approved in 2001, Mitchell Elementary the next school year began using a standards-based report card created by teachers with comments from parents.
    "Initially, the change was difficult for some parents to embrace," says Mitchell principal Raquel Reedy. But "surveys were sent out the first and second year with a majority of parents responding favorably."
    APS used Mitchell's report card as a model for schools in the La Cueva cluster, which are using the system this year.
    One of those schools is Double Eagle Elementary. At the beginning of the year, school officials held parent meetings on the new system and passed out literature on what to expect.
    However, Athena Christodoulou, a parent of a first- and a fifth-grader at the school, says after learning about the new system's emphasis on proficiency, she's convinced it is just "promoting mediocrity" since few students are earning 'ADV's.'
    "It teaches kids just to try for the minimum," Christodoulou says. "Do you really want our future doctors and engineers just trying to pass?"
    Everitt disagrees. "I don't think it's any different than a student that's happy with just a 'B.' ''
    Everitt says it's still up to individual teachers to motivate students to do well.
    Reedy says the new system compares an individual student to him or herself rather than to other students. "There are no winners with (the new system)," Reedy says. "Just learners."
    All APS elementary schools will adopt the system next school year. By 2007, middle schools will follow.
    Everitt says the district has no plans to expand the new grading system to high schools.