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New Grading System Begun in L.A. Schools : Education: Elementary report card is expanded. Top marks may be easier to attain.


New school report cards being used for the first time reflect changes in the grading system at Los Angeles city elementary schools that could make it easier for students to earn high marks.

The new grading system, unanimously approved in the spring by trustees of the Los Angeles Unified School District, instructs elementary school teachers to give top grades to students who have mastered subjects expected of their grade level.

Before, many teachers reserved their highest grades for students who could perform advanced work, such as the third-grader who could do fourth-grade arithmetic.

"It wasn't fair before," said Tony Alcala, a longtime city schools activist who pushed for the change. "If I am taking a college class, they are going to grade me on how well I know that class, not on how well I know an advanced class."

Alcala served on a 28-member committee of parents, teachers and administrators who worked for two years to revamp the elementary school grading system. Teacher inconsistency in issuing grades across the district is something the new system will amend, he said.

In addition, more than two dozen categories have been added to elementary school report cards, which will be printed in eight languages besides English. They will permit a subtler charting of student progress than plain letter grades have.

The old system "was broad and listed only general types of study," said Geri Herrera, the district's administrator of elementary school programs. "Now, the report card is more specific and aligns itself with the course of study in the classroom."

Math, for example, has grades for logic and how to measure. In social science, grades are given for students' understanding of "the historical connections between past, present and future."

The new progress report focuses on "learning" and "growth"--particularly for younger children--rather than grade-driven performance, district officials said.

It seeks to take the emphasis off grades as a goal--especially for younger children--"and place the emphasis on learning," said Assistant Supt. Sara A. Coughlin, who oversees the San Fernando Valley's elementary schools. "We're trying to say it's OK as long as they're growing and moving in the right direction. They learn concepts in spurts, just as they grow physically in spurts."

Changes in the report card system were recommended in a study ordered by former Supt. Leonard Britton in 1989. Report cards, and therefore classroom teaching, were supposed to be amended to better reflect the state-required curriculum for elementary school youngsters.

Reaction from teachers has been mixed; many complain that the new system is confusing. The district's 419 elementary schools were issued training instructions and a videotaped explanation, as well as copies of a 38-page report card handbook for sale at 20 cents each.

Some, such as Stacy Sinclair, a sixth-grade teacher at Pacoima School, praise the new format because it requires a more detailed accounting of student progress.

The new document contains a checklist of academic areas that must be assessed for each student, forcing teachers to make sure they cover all the requisite concepts.

"The good part is that it tells the parents what the teacher's been doing in the classroom and holds the teacher accountable through the year. 'Have you gotten to teaching this area yet? No? Why not?' There's something tangible we look back on and say, 'You didn't do your job,' " Sinclair said.

But adding to the confusion, and making it difficult to compare student grades from past years, are changes in the letter grades.

The letter S, which used to stand for satisfactory or average work, is now the top grade, indicating area of strength. The letter G, which stood for good and was one step below the top grade, now stands for growth and is the average grade. The letter O, which used to be outstanding, has been eliminated. N, for needs improvement, remains the same.

Students in grades four through six also receive traditional letter grades of A through F for the eight main subjects, in addition to grades of S, G and N in 29 other categories.

Opinion is mixed on whether the new system invites a greater number of high marks--with formerly outstanding and good grades collapsed into the new S designation--or whether teachers will simply be more sparing in awarding S grades.

Much will depend on how teachers interpret the system. They will need time to develop a consistent standard in their schools and throughout the district, officials acknowledge.

"We want consistency among teachers. We want an S to mean the same thing in every school in the district," said Mary Shambra, principal of Fletcher Drive School in Glassell Park, which held two workshops Wednesday to explain the new report card to parents.

Making the Grade After two years of discussions and an 18-month pilot program, the L.A. district this year revamped its elementary school grading system. Old System O: Outstanding G: Good S: Satisfactory N: Needs improvement New System S: Area of strength G: Growth N: Needs improvement

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