DANVILLE — Alissa Wright still remembers the excitement of opening her school report card and the sense of accomplishment upon seeing A's and B's.
But Wright, a teacher at Cannon Elementary School in Danville, believes the traditional letter-grading system leaves much to be desired when it comes to reporting students' academic performance in this day of No Child Left Behind, high-stakes testing and now, the new, more rigorous Common Core State Standards that will be used to measure academic achievement.
"If your child comes home with a C in math, that tells you they're struggling, but it doesn't tell you what they're struggling with," said Wright, who teaches first grade.
For example, one C student may do well in addition but not in subtraction. Another may understand subtraction but can't tell time.
"As a parent, you need to know exactly what your child knows and doesn't know and needs help with," said Wright, who helped design the more in-depth standards-based report cards for the Danville school district's youngest students.
This year, the district is piloting standards-based report cards for kindergarten, first- and second-grade students in all elementary schools except for Northeast Elementary Magnet School, which already uses a similar reporting system. Throughout the year, teachers and parents will provide feedback, which will be used to make any revisions before they are implemented in the 2013-14 school year.
The Danville district's strategic plan also calls for rolling them out for grades three through five in the next school year, and for grades six through eight in the 2014-15 year.
"It's a very different way of reporting our children's progress, but a better way," said special education director John Hart, who is overseeing the initiative with educational support programs director Diane Hampel.
"We want to make sure our students are meeting the state's higher learning standards, and standards-based report cards will provide specific information on how they're doing in each of those content areas and skills," Hampel said.
She and Hart said educators, parents and students will be able to see whether students need more support or to be challenged more in certain areas.
"By having these clearly defined expectations, we can work together to better address those needs and increase achievement," Hampel said.
Champaign and Urbana public schools have used the standards-based reporting system for students at various grade levels for several years, and other districts such as Rantoul are using them with kindergarten students for the first time this year.
"Next year we plan to roll out more grades," Rantoul schools Superintendent Michelle Ramage wrote in an email.
"Standards-based reporting gives families a very clear picture of the progress students are making toward reaching the specific expectations outlined in the Illinois Learning Standards as opposed to a general summary like, 'social studies: B,'" Jean Korder, Urbana schools' director of curriculum, instruction and assessment, wrote in an email.
Korder said a district task force will study implementing the reporting system at the secondary level, as well.
Champaign schools, which also use the reporting system at Central and Centennial High School, recently realigned standards-based report cards for kindergartners with Common Core standards and now will work on doing that for first through fifth grades, director of curriculum Trevor Nadrozny said.
Danville's redesigned report cards replace letter grades in math and English/language arts — derived from averaging grades on tests and daily assignments and factoring in things like homework completion, class participation and extra credit — with numeric ratings indicating students' proficiency in specific learning standards in those subjects.
Learning standards are a list of knowledge and skills that students should know and be able to do at the end of each grade level, as determined by the state.
For example, kindergartners should be able to fluently add and subtract within 5; identify basic geometric shapes; recognize and name upper- and lower-case letters; and retell a familiar story in sequence, among other things.
First-graders should be able to represent and solve word problems; tell and write time to the nearest hour and half hour; identify and describe plot, setting and characters; and write complete sentences with correct grammar, capitalization and punctuation, among other things.
And second-graders should be able to solve word problems involving adding and subtracting amounts of money; solve problems using data from simple charts, picture graphs and number sentences; compare and contrast two or more versions of the same story; and write clear and coherent opinion, explanatory and narrative documents with a solid introduction, development and conclusion section, among other things.
"We didn't include all of the standards, but they're the priority standards," Hart said, adding they are aligned to the Common Core State Standards, which Illinois will use to measure academic achievement, and the district's new reading and math curriculums that are Common Core-based.
"By aligning everything, we're going to better ensure that our students do well on (standardized tests) and that they'll be better prepared for success in college and in their career," Hart said.
At the end of each academic quarter, students will receive numerical ratings of 1 through 4, denoting their performance level in each standard. Under the new grading key, "4" means exceeds standards; "3" means meets standards; "2" means approaching standards, and "1" means below standards.
Kindergarten, first- and second-grade students will still receive effort ratings — "E" for excellent, "S" for satisfactory, "N" for needs improvement and "U" for unsatisfactory — for science, social studies, art, music and physical education. They also will receive those marks for showing respect, participating in activities, working independently, using time wisely and other "skills for success."
If teachers see that a few students are below standards in an area, they can pull them into a group and reteach the lesson or provide some type of intervention, Hampel said.
"If we see a lot of kids aren't meeting in an area, then we know we need to look at why that's happening and provide some professional development or support," Hart added.
To help focus learning, teachers are turning their classrooms into standards-rich environments. For each carefully planned lesson, they write the subject and the standard that's being taught on the chalkboard or in a visible spot where their pupils can see it and read it.
Teachers explain the standard and its objective in kid-friendly terms. Then the class uses the standard as the goal of the day and in "I can" statements.
"For example, 'I can add two-digit numbers with regrouping,'" Hampel said, adding that helps students understand the goal "and what they're supposed to do."
And to prepare students for the new report card grading scale, some teachers are moving away from giving letter grades or percentages on classroom assignments and tests.
"Instead, I give them a star or smiley-face sticker if they have demonstrated they meet the standard or are approaching it," Wright said.
Now school staff must educate parents on the shift from letter grades to number ratings, which may be more challenging.
Kindergarten parents won't have anything to compare it with, unless they have older children in school. And first-grade parents may be more familiar with the format since last year's kindergarten report card listed standards, which teachers evaluated using "M" for mastery, "S" for satisfactory, etc.
But "it's going to be very confusing for some," Wright said. "It's even hard for teachers to not think in terms of letter grades because that's how we were evaluated. An 'A' is what you always strove for. It's what you're rewarded for. My daughter could take her report card to Family Video and get a free DVD (rental) for every 'A.'"
To prepare parents, the district sent home fliers explaining the new system at registration in August. Officials also posted a question-and-answer sheet on the district's website. In addition to explaining the reporting system, it also answers questions about homework, promotion and retention and whether parents will continue to have access to their children's grades through the website's portal. The answer is "yes."
Building principals have gone into more detail at family council meetings this month. Kindergarten, first- and second-grade teachers used standards-based reporting when they sent home progress reports last week, and they plan to field questions and concerns this week and when they hand out report cards at parent-teacher conferences on Nov. 2.
Hampel said some parents might want to compare "4's" with "A's," "1's" with "F's" and so on, when, in fact, they're not alike. Others may forget that the numbers indicate students' progression toward meeting standards, or that the numbers focus solely on proficiency and not effort.
For example, a child who comes to kindergarten knowing the entire alphabet will get a 3 in letter recognition for meeting the standard. However, some parents may equate the 3 with a B and be disappointed their son or daughter didn't get a 4, which they equate to an A, since he or she knew all of the letters at the beginning of the year.
But "there are only 26 letters. There's no way to exceed that standard," Hampel pointed out.
And if a child comes to kindergarten knowing some letters and is doing well learning others, that child is going to get a "2."
"And that's OK," Hampel said, adding parents shouldn't worry that their child is behind. "Many students are going to have 2's. That means they're approaching the standard and right on track. We're hoping by the end of the year, they will have all 3's, which means they're meeting."
Hampel said some parents who believe their children are very bright and whose children have a history of getting straight A's may be concerned if their children don't receive a lot of 4's. She said students will have to show consistently that they're performing above grade level on a certain standard to receive that rating.
Hart is encouraging all parents of K-2 students to attend parent-teacher conferences to make sure they understand the ratings and see the assessment data, assignments and other activities that were used to measure their child's performance. He said that's also a time to set goals for the next quarter and share ideas about what parents can do at home to encourage and help their children improve.
"We believe it's going to be very positive for our district," he said, adding the new report cards benefit everyone.
Teachers are more consistent in expectations and standards, and they work more closely together due to common goals and understanding.
Parents can see exactly what their children know and don't know and can monitor their progress more closely and give them encouragement and support in the areas they need help.
And students know what success looks like.
"They can follow their progress and see what areas they need to work in to reach their goals," Hampel said. "This really motivates them to do that."
The Danville school district's grading key for standards-based report cards:
4 — Exceeds standards. The student consistently exceeds standards as demonstrated by a variety of work that shows an in-depth understanding and flexible use of grade-level concepts.
3 — Meets standards. The student consistently meets standards, understands and applies grade-level concepts and skills.
2 — Approaching standards. The student is developing, just beginning to independently use grade-level skills. At this level, the skills aren't yet mastered, there is inconsistent application of skills and the child may need assistance.
1 — Below standards. The student is working significantly below grade-level expectations, needs continued support and struggles with assistance.
More information about standards-based report cards can be found on the district's website at http://www.danville.k12.il.us .