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Tony Zini

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New Twist on Student Grades Ignites Controversy

Posted: 06/21/11 04:58 PM ET

This year (my 11th year of teaching) I decided to try something new. I didn't think the change was controversial or radical but it caused an intense reaction from the school community. For the first time, I decided to utilize state-approved methods for student grades. I thought: "If it is approved by the state, then it should not be a problem." Put simply, I was wrong, woefully wrong!

This year school started in typical fashion. The excitement and the buzz of the first day of school quickly transitioned into the consistent flow of our daily routines. The school days were filled with lessons, student work, writing assignments, science experiments, assessments, my bad jokes, etc. I graded the work and tests and sent the results home. I used the results to gauge student progress and guide instruction.

Parent conferences are conducted at the end of the first trimester. Since I decided to alter my approach to student evaluation, the time I spent on completing report cards was significantly reduced.

At the first conference, we discussed their child's progress and achievement and I used test averages, work samples, (science notebooks, writing samples, trimester tests, etc.) and my observations to discuss their child's achievement. Everything was going great until we got to the report card. We began to review the report card and the parents saw that all the boxes were marked "n/e" (not evaluated) and the once amicable discussion turned tense. They just stared at me in disbelief.

I explained to them that grades will be entered at the end of the year. I am using an end-of-year assessment to grade the entire year. The parents are upset and frustrated. I tried to alleviate their concerns by telling them that the assessment is approved by the state of California.

While holding an essay composed by his child, his father asked me a simple question: "What about all this work and all the tests he took in class?" I informed him that this work is preparing his child for the test at the end of the year. Unhappy and frustrated, they stormed out of my room and headed straight to the principal's office.

All 32 of my conferences ended in similar fashion.

Thankfully the classroom was immune to the brewing controversy. The year progressed with students completing social studies projects, science experiments, technology-based projects, etc. The end of the second trimester was upon us before we knew it. Report cards were sent home at the end of the grading period.

It is a repeat of the first trimester. The frustration level has increased and my methods were under increased scrutiny.

Once again the common refrain was: "What about all the work being done in class?"

The parents show up in numbers at the next school board meeting to protest. Editorials are written and a local news channel picked up the story.

My new approach was not sitting well with the students, parents, or administrators; but maybe they would see the wisdom in the end. At least, that's my hope.

Inside the classroom things were humming along. Students were engaged and parents were volunteering in the classroom. In early May, my class took the state standardized tests. In third grade, the multiple choice test covers the subjects of language arts and math. My students seemed to do well.

On the last day of school I sent home the report cards. The envelopes were opened immediately. At first, everyone seems satisfied but that quickly changed. Dismay swept through the parents and students when they realized that the areas of science, social studies, physical education, and citizenship were left blank.

The parents confronted me, a reporter shouted questions, and I was summoned to multipurpose room for an impromptu town hall meeting. Emotions were high. I felt like Ted Nugent at a gun control rally!

I tried to explain the situation. I used state test results to calculate grades for the entire year. Since the test in third grade covers only language arts and math, the other subject areas were not given grades.

I don't think there is one parent who liked this new method!

The enormity of the situation really hit home when I was invited to appear on Oprah! As the show opened, the mood turned adversarial as Oprah began to grill me on my methods. Michelle Rhee "Skyped" in and condemned my actions. As the attacks rained down, I sat silently and listened. I guess the only cool thing was that each audience member was given their very own third grade teacher!

Finally, Oprah looked at me and asked, "Why?" Of all the questions asked of me this year, no one had ever asked the most basic question of why. I guess that is why she is the greatest!

I looked at the audience and answered her question in one simple sentence: I was simply evaluating students in the exact way we are evaluating teachers. There was a long silence as everyone digested my response. Even Michelle Rhee was speechless!

Of course, this story is complete fiction. I would never subject my students or their parents to this method of evaluation for an entire year's worth of work. It is too narrow and it is not an accurate representation of actual student achievement. In addition, it discounts most of the work the students have completed. It's like evaluating an entire movie from the trailer. Do you remember The English Patient?

Like Oprah in the above fictional account, I only have one simple question: If this is a ridiculous way to evaluate student achievement, why is seen as an effective and reliable measure of teacher effectiveness?

I point this out not to protect teachers, but to protect students. If we keep marching down the current path to teacher accountability (effectiveness based only on standardized tests scores), students will ultimately suffer. Our nation's classrooms will be turned into test taking factories that will fail to equip students with the higher level thinking skills they will need for the 21st century.

If we really want improve education, one of the things we must do is set up system that accurately and reliably measures teacher effectiveness. Don't you think this system should mirror the way student achievement is measured? Teachers use multiple measures over time to obtain an accurate picture of student achievement. I don't think it is too much to ask the same for measuring teachers.