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District Profile

Keeping the ABCs in the Classroom and off the Report Card

Are letter grades really important? One upstate New York district not only thinks they aren't, but i

What is insane? In Niagara Falls, N.Y., residents are used to crazy behavior. Besides the disconcerting monthly suicides, there are the stunts. People have walked tightropes over Niagara Falls, gone over in barrels, big plastic balls, kayaks, even jet skis.

But to Niagara Superintendent of Schools Carmen A. Granto, insane is something else. It is doing the same thing over and over and expecting the results to differ. It is sending home the same report card, quarter after quarter, and expecting parents to get more out of it than they do.

So, Niagara is not doing the same old thing anymore. Like the falls itself, the district is working its way up-river, trying to change report cards to better harness the power of parents.

"We need parental help," Granto says. "They need to know what we know." But there is a current against this change, a culture that clings to letter grades and clear-cut K-12 grade levels.

Niagara Falls, about 20 minutes north of Buffalo, is an urban district with more than 67 percent of its student population qualifying for free or reduced-priced lunch. In 1999-2000, only 33 percent of the graduates went on to four-year colleges. Thirty-nine percent went to two-year colleges. Eighteen percent went to work.

While many students are from poor families, the population is still racially mixed. Its annual attendance rate is rather high at about 92 percent, and the dropout rate has been lower than the state average. All high school students have laptops, and the district keeps up technologically, Granto says.

But like many urban districts, test scores are not where the system wants them to be. The district generally meets the average for similar districts on Regents exams, but meeting or exceeding the statewide average has been a tougher assignment. The district only significantly exceeded statewide averages in one area on the 2001 Regent assessments. In Comprehensive English, 91 percent, or 470 11th graders, passed the exam.

Seeking Parents Help Niagara is hoping parents can help make a difference here. The district leaders plan to eliminate letter and numerical grades in the elementary schools by the end of the year. Instead, they will use a benchmarking report card that lists skills students covered that quarter in language arts, math, social studies and science. It will indicate whether students mastered district standards for each skill. The district has already put out elementary report cards benchmarking language arts for six years. Math was added this year.

In the middle schools, the benchmarking system will be installed for math this year, with the hopes of converting to a full benchmarking system by next year. Middle schools have been benchmarking for about two years with language arts.

Administrators sadly concede the district's high school isn't ready to switch. "I don't think colleges are ready for benchmarking," says Maureen Ingham, a district curriculum specialist who has worked on benchmarking for years.

Part of the new system involves a more organized support system for parents looking to help their children achieve. "Many parents are saying, 'Tell me what you want me to do,' " Ingham says.

The answer is easy now. Parents can pick up homework packets designed to strengthen their children's weak areas, or they can enroll their children in after-school booster classes that are need-specific.

"To me, that means a whole lot more than your child got an 82," says Ingham. "But many parents are still looking for the 70, 80 or 90."

Granto's public announcement this fall on the district's new report card plans is unnerving quite a few parents.

"There was a tremendous amount of phone ringing and letter writing," Ingham says. So, the school district has embarked on a period of parent education and outright negotiation.

This is good, Ingham notes. "Sometimes you have to drop a bombshell to get people interested."

The district has formed a committee of about 24 parents, and staff will work with them in four, two-hour sessions. Part of these sessions will be educational; the other part will be for parents to clarify exactly what they want out of a report card.

"So, he is very much listening to parents," Ingham says of the superintendent. Since report cards are for parents, parents should have a say in what it contains, she adds.

Listening does not mean caving in, however. Granto has warned that benchmarking is non-negotiable. Ingham says the district might end up with some sort of dual system at the middle school, continuing to provide traditional grades, or perhaps a committee can come up with a better alternative. "We are that interested in out-of-the-box thinking," she notes.

Lisa Carruthers says her son's teacher provides comments along with the benchmarking, and that helps her accept the new system. She generally does not see letter or numerical grades even on her second-grade boy's projects or homework assignments. It does not bother her, nor does it bother many elementary school parents.

"I could care less if I ever saw a numerical grade again," Carruthers admits.

"They are our biggest supporters," Granto says.

Carruthers says the benchmarking is "very specific." The report card even tells her if her eight-year-old has mastered addition and subtraction.

"I like the system," Carruthers says. "And we will try to help parents who are having trouble with this."

Carruthers, a member of the report card committee, says she is fairly confident the controversy will blow over. "I definitely feel this is helping. I think we are on the forefront of something here," she says.

Training Teachers Helps Perhaps the opposition is not overwhelming because the district has been planning this move for about six years.

Niagara has already aligned its curriculum with New York standards, detailing what children need to learn each week of the school year. It gives quarterly tests to assess if the children and the curriculum are on target. Carruthers notes she does get to see how her son scores on these quarterly tests, and that helps.

The district has spent the last few years training the teachers on benchmarking.

"Teacher training is the single most important factor in making this work," Ingham says.

First, teachers were given intensive full-day training sessions. Now, they keep up with annual workshops. Teachers have also had time to adjust since elementary teachers have been benchmarking in language arts for six years.

Middle school has been different. While middle school teachers have been benchmarking in language arts for about two years, they have also been providing traditional grades as well.

Ingham says it is tough to have a dual system because traditional grades do not always correlate with the benchmarking. "We have a lot of work to do there," she admits.

Getting Results The school district has designed its benchmarking system with little outside help. It all started with a book by Brenda Weaver called Defining Literacy Levels. Weaver has a model for the benchmarking system, but it is specific to language arts and ends at third-grade.

Granto ultimately hopes to have a completely electronic report card system, so parents can access the grade book through cable or by computer.

"I know it will work. It already has," Granto says of his new report card.

Fourth grade language arts state test scores have risen the last few years. In 2000, 65 percent of fourth graders, as opposed to 43 percent the previous year, met or exceeded the standards. The Niagara/Weaver model is even catching some attention in neighboring districts. The Board of Cooperative Educational Services, which covers 13 area districts, is going to be using the benchmark program for language arts for elementary summer school.

But the district isn't content to stop here. Granto is thinking of eliminating delineated lower elementary grades, although he's taking a less aggressive approach.

Granto has put out a call (with funding) for teachers to experiment mixing early elementary grade levels in one classroom. So far, a few teachers have responded.

Amy D'Orio,, is a freelance writer based in Brookfield, Conn.