For years, parents have complained that report cards skimp on the details and don't go far enough in helping them understand what their children have - or haven't - learned in school.
But a new progress-reporting system developed by a longtime Baltimore County educator aims to fill that gap with a computerized checklist that charts detailed objectives and skills.
Tested this spring in a few county schools, the system is being made available on a voluntary basis to all of the county's teachers this coming school year, and the superintendent hopes it will be widely used.
In addition to the traditional reports with letter grades that measure students' mastery of a given subject, participating teachers will give parents progress reports that will tell them whether their children can, for instance, convert fractions to decimals or determine percent of a number. Until it is mastered, a skill or objective follows a student from grade to grade.
School officials and community leaders see the reporting system, called the Articulated Instruction Module, as a tool for parents who want guidance on how to help their children.
"As test scores show, too often children are failing, and no one responsible for their education seems to know why, and there is no other evidence in the student's folder other than a bunch of papers with letter grades," said Barbara Dezmon, assistant to the county school superintendent for equity and assurance, who created the program. "At the end of an education, we just know that the student is not adequately prepared."
Some educators and civic leaders applaud the new reports, especially their plain language. Others, including the county's teachers union, worry that the checklists will be one more task on teachers' already full plates and leave them open to undue scrutiny.
It's hard to peg how many school systems nationally are using similar progress reports, but Baltimore County's effort appears to be a rare step toward providing a comprehensive skills inventory that should systematically track a student's progress. Education advocates point to it as an example of what more school systems ought to be doing to ensure that students aren't falling behind.
"These type of growth models go beyond the one-time snapshot and tell us how much does Johnny know now and how much did he progress," said Reginald M. Felton, director of federal relations for the National School Boards Association. "This comprehensive measuring of progress is a step in the right direction so that parents understand, 'What is it my child should know?'"
James West, a 42-year-old logistics manager, said he was pleasantly surprised this spring when his stepson's math teacher gave him a three-page report during a parent-teacher conference.
His stepson, 12-year-old Tyre Bethea, is a rising seventh-grader who was among the students whose teacher at Woodlawn Middle School participated in a small-scale pilot of the program in the system's northwest-area schools, including Powhatan, Hebbville, Woodmoor and Featherbed Lane elementaries.
"It helped us out a great deal," said West, who added that Tyre has struggled with math. "I know what I need to do to help him out. I know what he can do and can't do, and what he's working on."
West said the report helped him determine where Tyre might need tutoring and gives him, as a parent, the confidence that his stepson is on the right track.
"I'd hate for him to go along through each grade and get to the end, get a diploma and still not know what he needs to know to be successful," West said. "This little piece of paper could make a big change for a lot of people."
Other districts, including Prince George's County and Baltimore City, are interested in using the system, according to Baltimore County school officials, who added that all of Maryland's systems can use the copyrighted program for free beginning this year.
Dezmon, a former English teacher, said she began developing the program nearly 20 years ago when she was looking for ways to better communicate with parents, especially those of minority children, and homeless and otherwise transient students.
"This makes it easier to do individualized instruction because the teacher knows exactly what a student has or hasn't learned," Dezmon said. "With this, there are no good kids and no bad kids, just children and the skills they should know."
But the president of the county's teachers union said preparing the progress reports - which would be done quarterly in addition to report cards - will burden overworked teachers. She also worries that instructors will be blamed when a child fails to master a skill.
Doing such reports, in addition to regular report cards, "would create an enormous amount of work for teachers," Cheryl Bost, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, wrote in a July 10 letter to school board members and schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston.
In a recent interview, Bost said she has several questions, including: What happens when a child continually fails to master a skill - mandatory summer school or repeating a grade? What are school officials doing to ensure that the progress-report objectives are built into teachers' lessons? And, when will teachers find time to do everything that is asked of them?
"This is going to tell parents where the deficit is, but is there a plan in place for when, during the school year, teachers are supposed to find the time to meet the student's needs?" she asked.
School officials said they are still working out details such as when to retain a child in grade.
Bost said she hasn't seen a presentation of how the progress reporting system works, but she has spoken with teachers who participated in the small-scale pilot this spring.
"It's an add-on, from what teachers tell me," she said.
Bost added that she doubts that the system will remain voluntary because it's likely teachers will feel pressured to create the reports by principals who want to impress administrators.
Hairston said he hopes many teachers will choose to create the reports, adding that the school system has "a moral obligation" to provide them because it can.
"What responsible parent would not want this information on their child?" Hairston said. "My responsibility is to at least bring it before the public and let them know it's there."
By the first day of school, school officials say, Baltimore County parents will be able to log onto the system's Web site to access lists of objectives and skills for every class. That way, parents can chart for themselves what their children should be taught during the year.
The computerization of the reports also should make it easier for teachers and administrators to track and analyze student progress, from individuals to the entire district.
Because the reports will show how well students are progressing, officials say, teachers can use them to focus their classroom time.
Under the system, a teacher would give each student letter-grade type ratings every nine weeks on a series of knowledge and skill indicators for each course. Unlike the traditional report card grade, an "A" on this evaluation would mean the child needs "acceleration," or remedial help. An "I" would indicate the need for further "instruction." And an "M" would signal the student is at or approaching "mastery."
Dezmon said she hopes teachers welcome the evaluations as a way to provide more information about their students than they can with the current system of test scores and report cards.
"In this era of testing - state testing and national testing - they have removed the teacher, period," she said. "Teachers are represented in modern education by the letter grades they put on report cards. Everything else fades out. But these [progress reports] are based on teachers' observations of their students."
Teacher in favor
One teacher who tested the new system this spring said he liked it.
Robert King, a math teacher at Woodlawn Middle School, said he found the reports "no more time-consuming" than regular report cards. He said he finished an entire year's worth of reports in about an hour and a half for each of the 25 students in his sixth-grade math class.
King said the list of objectives and skills closely matched what he had taught, and knowing his students' strengths and weaknesses enabled him to quickly complete the checklists.
"As a teacher, whenever they tell you there's something new you're going to have to do, you have reservations," he said. "But with what this allowed me to do, I was impressed."
Besides making his parent-teacher conferences go more smoothly, King said, he can target his instruction for a student who transfers to his class late in the year. He foresees that it could save teachers time, especially at the beginning of the school year, because they won't have to do diagnostic testing for children who are in the database.
"To me, it's a no-brainer," King said. "This is one of the simplest things we've done to get solid tracking of student data. We track grades, but let's be honest, what does a grade tell you? ... This is better than a standard report card because it's a justified grade. It allows parents to have a solid footing of where a student stands."