Friday, December 04, 2009

Report Cards

I am inundated right now with angry emails from students who are convinced that their essays have been badly misgraded by their T.A.s and that I should upgrade them to a minimum of 70%. Somewhat more polite - and yet simmering with unexpressed rage - are the emails from students with marks like 78% or 83%, who want to know exactly how they lost those marks and how they can improve. So there is a certain amount of poetic justice in the dismay I felt when I opened Bub's first report card this week and saw a mixture of B's (in math, science, and social studies) and C's (in visual arts, writing, and oral communication), along with one A- (in reading). I scanned the marks and morphed instantaneously into a caricature of my least likeable students. Why is he getting C's in written and oral communication when he has a diagnosed communication disorder? What exactly has he failed to grasp in math and science? Most importantly of all, what is that MINUS all about in reading???

I've become a little complacent about Bub lately. The aspect of his academic performance I'm most familiar with is his reading ability, and there he seems almost preternaturally strong. This time last year he couldn't recognize all the letters of the alphabet and now he reads fluently, expressively, and with evident enjoyment. He may get a bit daunted with chapter books, but he can work his way through any picture book with ease.

The minus, it turns out, has to do with his ability to make inferences and personal connections. He grasps the content of the books he reads, but when it comes to puzzling out characters' motivations, or the likely outcome of events, he struggles.

So last night when I was reading to him and Pie I decided to throw in a few questions. We were reading about a mouse getting ready to go outside in the snow. The mouse put on his long johns, and then his parka. He put on a toque, and a scarf, and five pairs of socks. In each subsequent illustration he got rounder and puffier until finally he donned a ski mask and prepared to head outside.

"Do you think he's feeling warm right now, or cold?" I asked.

For once Bub was the first to answer, and as he was opening his mouth to speak I suddenly knew what he would say. "I think cold," he answered.

"No," Pie interrupted, sure of her ground. "He's warm!"

Indeed, the very next sentence dwelt on how very uncomfortably warm the mouse was, all flushed and sweaty under his comically excessive piles of clothing. Pie got the answer right, and she did so because she approached the question using her capacity for empathy: she imagined what it would be like to wear all those layers of fleece and wool and knew she would be warm. Bub, on the other hand, went by a sense of association: hats and mittens are cold-weather clothes, and when we have them on we're often still cold, despite the protection they provide. His answer wasn't the one I was looking for - it wasn't the one that accurately predicted the next sentence of the story - but it did make a certain kind of sense.

It was easier to target Bub's language deficits when he was missing whole parts of speech from his vocabulary. Now, what we're working on is that lapse of time between question and answer, that moment when his brain darts around in the dark, looking to unearth the words that can bring his thoughts into the light.


Karen said...

Okay, I'm still stuck on your little guy getting actual letter grades on a report card. Here in apparently super-crunchy New England, even my 5th grader does not get those. We have this whole other system that is obtuse to me, but pushes fewer buttons.
It is hard - I haven't seen a report card for any of my kids at our new school & am waiting to see what the word on Henry is. He certainly can read but his brain is full of wacky track and curve balls.

Bon said...

i just coordinated and adjudicated a massive set of exams today - not without hiccups - and i am dreading the students lined up outside my door all next week.

but i'd never thought about what i'll be like, soon enough, when my kid's in school. point taken. ;)

your point about how Bub perceives the bundled mouse has me thinking about cues and how some we're rewarding for picking up on and others we're intended to ignore. huh.

Bea said...

Karen - Oh yes, buttons galore. They switched to a number system for awhile, and apparently parents hated it, but I really think I would have done much better without the massive flashbacks and psychological triggers that the ABC system gave me.

Mouse said...

No letter grades here--numbers that correspond to various levels in relation to expected performance.

One of the things that has been a little hard for me to accept is that Scooter is in the middle reading group in 1st grade. He was the strongest reader in kindergarten last year and is, as far as I can tell from my volunteering work, not below any of the kids in the top group in terms of ability. I don't know if it's just because he wasn't compliant during the testing at the beginning of the year or if some of it is the fact that he has similar problems to Bub in terms of getting beneath the upper level of information in a story. I'm also not convinced that keeping him in the middle group will do anything to improve this ability--seems like the main thing they do is just ask the same questions over and over again and not necessarily approach it as a skill.

Carol said...

I am boggled and baffled by the way that they teach small children nowadays. Maybe it has always been like that, and since I was in a private Montessori school until grade 4, I simply was not exposed to it.

All I know is my six year old goddaughter comes home exhausted, with an hour's worth of homework which she and her mother will weep over later.

I think it's crazy to start assigning letter grades to small children, too. After all, when you apply for university, no one's going to be like "Oh, she got a C in grade 1. Don't accept HER."

At this age report cards should simply deal with the child. Written words about how the child is learning, what he is good or poor at, where he needs to improve, where he doesn't.

Jen said...

I agree that letter grades in elementary school are pretty ridiculous. I can see an on target/at expected level, above or below sort of thing, that makes sense.

In K the schools had a "by the end of the year" checklist divvied into the marking periods. As your child solidified a skill it was checked off. That was nice because you had a general idea of all the expectations.

Of course, that sensible system was only for K and then it was letter grades all the way.

Some kids work very hard and are performing at the top of their current ability and get a B or C or D -- other kids could be doing that well or better, but choose to do no work...but their D, below which they cannot be graded looks the same as the C or D of a kid who worked his or her little heart out to get enough of the concept to earn that grade.

Grading not so great even at its best!

Mimi said...

I've been wondering about Bub, lately. Does it frustrate him that his sister so aggressively gets these answers right, and right away?

And, seriously I want to know, do you think his grades should be handicapped (like golf games) because of his medical history?

Bea said...

Mimi - That issue came up at the parent-teacher interview. Bub has an accommodated IEP, not a modified IEP (at least, I think modified was the word). That means he receives various accommodations in the classroom, but he is graded on the same scale as everybody else. I asked the spec ed coordinator if that might change and she didn't think so - Bub is coping well with the regular curriculum, so there shouldn't be a need to modify it for him. I do think, though, that he should receive extra time for writing assessments, and we explored the possibility of letting him use a computer for certain writing assignments where the purpose is to develop complex narratives. For now, I want to target the areas where he's weak (i.e. personal connections, inferences) because I think he CAN learn that stuff - he just needs extra support to learn it.

Bea said...

Mimi - And no, he doesn't get upset at Pie - usually I think he's relieved because answering questions is challenging for him and she relieves him of the responsibility. Occasionally they get in shouting matches over whose turn it is to talk, though, which would be funny if it weren't so annoying.

Kyla said...

I think you'd like my essays, I turn them in on time and get 98s and 100s mostly. :)

I wonder if Bub inferred that the mouse must be cold, since he was putting on extra clothing? That seems to be a more concrete answer than understanding the motives behind overdressing was to prepare for the upcoming cold. I'm always so fascinated by these sorts of differences in thinking.