On PointVincent Carroll, editor of the editorial pages, writes his On Point column most weekdays. He is also an author and freelance writer. Reach Vincent Carroll at carrollv@RockyMountainNews.com.
Carroll: Numbers game
You can’t blame some parents for getting their backs up at the Denver Public Schools for replacing letter grades in middle schools with a system of 1-2-3-4. Even when you understand the theory behind the change, it’s not clear what it means in practice.
Let’s see if we can sort this out. According to the district's parent guide, a “4” means students are “far ahead of where they are expected to be at that point in time, relative to the [state] standards.” But it does not equal an “A.”
A “3” means students are “well on their way to reaching the standard at the end of the year.” But it is not the same as a “B.”
A “2” means a student is “not quite on track to meet the standard,” while a “1” means the student is flat out behind. But don’t confuse them with a “C” or a “D,” let alone an “F.”
To further muddle matters, upset parents in southeast Denver say they’ve been told that 4’s will be rare indeed, stoking suspicion that a 3 will amount to a catchall category lumping kids from high C’s to low A’s in a single undivided mass.
Not so, insists Denver’s chief academic officer, Jaime Aquino. The new system, he says, is “much more precise.”
No, I guess we can’t sort this out.
The parent guide disparages the old grading system (which is still used in high schools) as follows: “In a traditional system, what does an ‘A’ really mean? It only compares students within their class. A standards-based progress report allows you to gauge your student’s academic progress using a meaningful measure, the state standard.”
Sounds good, but what does that really mean? A standards-based education is only as good as the standards, and most parents have no idea if the Colorado standards are truly top-notch. For example, does being proficient in the 8th grade math standard mean you can compete with a kid of the same age in Seoul or Hamburg?
The district could help parents figure out what the new system means by documenting how it’s actually used. After this school year, why not offer parents a detailed breakdown of the grade distribution at their school in the first year of the new system compared to the final year of the old?
It may be that teachers are handing out 4’s at about the same rate they awarded A’s (although whether that’s a good thing is a separate discussion; maybe A’s were given out too freely in the past). Or perhaps the overwhelming majority of grades in many schools are now 3’s and 2’s, in which case the district has moved to the near equivalent of a satisfactory/unsatisfactory grading system.
Whatever the case, parents deserve more than reassuring references to a state standard they may not fully understand.
Ever wonder why the The Denver Museum of Nature & Science can donate $300,000 to this fall’s campaign to pass a series of bond projects that will benefit that institution when school districts can’t spend a penny of their budgets pushing similar ballot issues to help themselves?
Elementary, my dear taxpayer. State law says “No agency, department, board, division, bureau, commission or council of the state or any political subdivision thereof shall . . . expend any public moneys” urging electors “to vote in favor of or against any local ballot issue.” The museum, meanwhile, while it does operate in a city-owned facility, is a not-for-profit organization that uses its visitor fees rather than the public money it receives from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District for its political contributions.
A legal loophole? Maybe not, since we wouldn’t want to quash the free speech of nonprofits. But it sure feels like one, doesn’t it?
Vincent Carroll is editor of the editorial pages. Reach him at carrollv@RockyMountainNews.com.