Numerous elementary schools around the country have moved to so-called standards-based grading and report cards. Many middle schools are onboard, as well. But high schools have been much slower to embrace the change.
"It's a big leap for people," said Denise Khaalid, assistant principal at South Pointe High School in Rock Hill, S.C.
There's widespread agreement among educators that the standards-based report cards are more informative than traditional ones, and proponents say they're more accurate and fairer, too.
"As a parent, my child would come home with a C on a report card but what does it mean?" said Sally Jo Gilbert de Vargas, the house administrator at Whitman Middle School in Seattle. "Are they not getting their work done, are they not getting A's on their tests?"
Standards-based grading breaks down the academic subjects into content areas and reports a child's progress in mastering each of them, sometimes on a 1-to-4 scale or a proficiency scale. Work habits and behaviour are usually graded separately. The system allows for different ways to measure whether a student has met the standards, Gilbert de Vargas said.
"Everything doesn't ride on one test score," said Susan Olezene, director for student achievement, curriculum and professional learning for the Aurora Public Schools in Colorado. "There should be multiple opportunities for students to show what they know and are able to do in a variety of ways."
So why the reluctance at the high school level?
At that point, grades count toward graduation or college admissions.
"One of the problems (with standards-based grading) is how do you convert that to the GPA?" asked Henry Duvall, spokesman for the Great City Schools, which represents large school districts around the country.
Robert Bardwell, director of guidance at Monson High School in Massachusetts, said parents need information about their children's progress no matter what grade they're in. Some high schools have moved away from the traditional grading, he said, and "students in those schools are going to college somewhere."
For many high schools, though, there's a reluctance to move to an unfamiliar, nontraditional system.
"Parents understand what a grade says," said Deborah Hardy, director of school counselling services at Somers Central School District in New York. "They understand what the final average says. These are fields that colleges have accepted."
Aurora Public Schools have found a way to do both — giving parents more detailed information about a student's progress, while providing grades to colleges and universities in the traditional format of GPAs. Olezene said the school district involved parents from the start and phased in the new grading system, beginning with elementary schools in 2001, middle schools in 2009 and high schools just this past January. The district posted information about standards-based grading on its website, including a video and sample report cards.
"Our students were always being graded with standards in mind," she said. "However, it's very intentional when those are used for reporting."
In the high school, the students' standards-based grades are translated to the A-B-C-D system. "There is always a concern about fairness and our kids being graded as fairly as students in other districts," Olezene said.
For example, an A would be given to a student who "consistently and independently demonstrates proficient and advanced understanding in course concepts and skills in a variety of assessments." A student who "demonstrates proficiency in course concepts and skills with teacher and peer support" would receive a C.
Other schools have tried sending home progress reports midway between marking periods that are more narrative in nature and detail progress, or lack of it.
Olezene said the trend needs to be toward standards-based reporting.
"I think we absolutely need to move forward in this way because it empowers students to be part of school. It should be relevant to them," she said. "There's always room for that conversation with higher ed."
However they're reported, grades should be comprehensive and understandable, said James Martinez, spokesman for the National PTA. "Even with the traditional grading system, there is miscommunication," he said.