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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 12/16/2010

Schools miscommunicating with parents

By Jay Mathews

A seventh-grader at River Bend Middle School in Loudoun County is getting little homework. Under a new system called standard-based grading, teachers are supposed to use quick quizzes in class, not overnight assignments, to assess how students are doing. It is fairer and more dependable, many experts say, but it is also preventing the student’s mother from helping her child learn.

“Parents don’t find out until after a child has been assessed whether the child knows the subject or not,” said the mother, who asked not be identified out of fear of stigmatizing her child. When her child was still doing homework, she could check it for signs of comprehension. Now, she said, “all I see are in-class work sheets and study guides, which tell me nothing about understanding of the subject.”

The surge in quizzes and tests is also frustrating, she said, because her child has a learning disability that makes test preparation a hard slog.

Her efforts to find out why this is happening, and what she can do about it, suffer because of the difficulty of any public school sending parents a consistent message about what is going on. The miscommunication that results is one of the least-reported and most aggravating parts of the American education system, so I decided to look more closely at the parent’s complaint.

The school has a very experienced principal, Bennett Lacy, who has run River Bend since it opened 10 years ago. River Bend was one of only two among Loudoun’s 13 middle schools to make adequate yearly progress last year under the federal No Child Left Behind law. Lacy has embraced the standards-based grading system as a way to raise achievement for all students.

With frequent quizzes, teachers check for comprehension before going on to new lessons, he said. They grade only on how much has been learned, not on classroom behavior or homework completion or other matters shown by research not to reflect achievement.

“Grades should be comprised of clear and precise evidence over time of what a child knows, understands, is able to do and carry forward,” Lacy said.

Just how to communicate that to parents, Lacy indicated, is a work in progress. He said he did not think the complaints about too little homework and too many quizzes were the fault of standard-based grading but instead could be handled by individual teachers.

According to the mother who spoke to me, teachers say they can’t change the homework policy and many don’t like it. Their solution to the wear-and-tear of so many quizzes and tests is to give students a chance to take breaks, and to retake tests if they have poor results.

Lacy said he asked the teachers who had the child of the parent who spoke to me why they gave so little homework and was told students would not do it because it didn’t count on their report cards. He said that wasn’t true of that particular child, but he did not discuss the individual case with the teachers because he did not want them to treat the child differently because her mother had complained. I asked whether that meant he feared some of his teachers might act unprofessionally. “Well, it has happened,” he said.

So the parent still does not know the teachers’ candid view of what will help her child. Some schools have paid parental advisers to bridge such communication gaps, although the jobs are often cut when budgets get lean.

This mother has gone outside the school, spending $550 on tests to determine the nature of her child’s disability so she can help with the quizzes. The student is doing better in retests at River Bend. The mother said she hopes that continues but that she still yearns for a chance to understand why the school is pursuing a course that does not make sense to her.

Read Jay's blog every day, and follow all of The Post's Education coverage on Twitter, Facebook and our Education Web page.

By Jay Mathews  | December 16, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Local Living  | Tags:  Loudoun County, River Bend Middle School, also increase in tests and quizzes is a strain, new system has little homework so parent can't help child progress, parent-school miscommunication, principal declines to help parent with teachers because he does not want them to stigmatize her child, standard-based grading  
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What the school isn't sharing is whether you call it "mastery" = re-testing until they get it, or "standard based grading" = tests/quizzes and re-testing once again, it is all done, not for learning or education, but for the school/teachers to plot out who will or won't pass the SOL tests.
Despite this school being one of two in that district to meet AYP all schools know the closer to 2014 we get, if the law exists, they too will not meet AYP. Many schools who used the VGLA (probably inappropriately, i.e. qualifying too many students to take it) will now have to deal with those students also taking the SOL instead of VGLA. Many VGLA students have not actually taken a SOL test previously, and hadn't taken similar tests throughout the school how to know how they will fair? Test and quiz them throughout the year and make it seem it is about the kid learning.

Posted by: researcher2 | December 16, 2010 11:09 AM | Report abuse

for researcher2---I am afraid you are on to something there.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 16, 2010 11:33 AM | Report abuse

Jay, you've completely mis-characterized standards-based grading. The link you provided correctly defines standards-based grading as "measuring students' proficiency on well-defined course objectives." The whole point is to provide feedback to students and parents about mastery of specific skills and knowledge, rather than meaningless points for completion (which does not equal understanding) or averages (which does not represent learning over time). Standards-based grading does NOT require quick quizzes in class rather than overnight assignments. Any assessment can be used to inform standards-based grading, including traditional quizzes and tests, in-class assignments, homework, projects, observing or conferencing with students, etc. The key is for the teacher to identify the specific skills or content to be learned, determine what levels of proficiency look like, and assess over time. A standards-based report card would show what skills and content a student has mastered and where s/he needs more help. It provide teachers with information about their overall instruction and the needs of individual students. The principal at this school seems to understand standards-based grading; her decisions about quizzes and homework are a different issue. I suspect the problem is that teachers are not familiar or comfortable with setting concrete and discrete learning objectives and developing assessment techniques that allow them to parse individual skills and knowledge acquisition.

Posted by: gideon4ed | December 16, 2010 12:22 PM | Report abuse

For gideon4ed---I appreciate yr letting us know what standards-based grading is supposed to be, but as a reporter I have to tell readers what forms it takes in actual schools, and how that affects students, teachers and parents. So I am not mischaracterizing it at all. The reality trumps the ideal. Whatever you think it ought to be is not nearly as important as what it is. We need to understand what is really going on or we have no chance to reach the ideal.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 16, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Jay: I think I'm taking issue with the way you set up your post. In your opening you say "Under a new system called standard-based grading, teachers are supposed to use quick quizzes in class, not overnight assignments, to assess how students are doing. It is fairer and more dependable, many experts say, but it is also preventing the student’s mother from helping her child learn." Your second sentence suggests that experts would agree that standards-based grading is a new system that uses quick quizzes instead of overnight assignments. I think if you asked most experts, they would say that quick quizzes instead of overnight assignments has nothing to do with standards-based grading and that there appears to be some confusion at one particular school about what standards-based grading entails. But this gets lost because you've wrongly defined standards-based grading and then suggest experts support your definition.

Posted by: gideon4ed | December 16, 2010 1:15 PM | Report abuse

Oh, come now. The schools don't use books or worksheets for teaching? If there's no homework, the mom should have the kid tell her what they are working on and she can check how he understands it.

I suspect the real reason she's unhappy is because her child can't artificially elevate his or her grade simply by doing the homework.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 16, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I found this an interesting, if somewhat confusing post. My wife teaches middle school math in Colorado in a public school district that made a big push several years ago to move to standards based grading. It was more than a small change in mindset, and took several years for people to settle in. Where my wife ended up: She gives what she hopes is 5-15 minutes of homework almost every night, and it counts for ~10% of the grade. It is mostly a giveaway, with full credit if you show anything resembling an honest try, often self graded. She gives a quiz every week or two, and unit tests every 3-4 weeks. If you do better on a topic on the test than on the quiz, she ignores the quiz grade. If you flub up the test, you can retake the test, but only if you did your homework! If you ace the final, you will probably get that grade. The emphasis is have you learned the material, and there are many chances. If you do well on the exams, you can not turn in a page of homework and get an A. She communicates with the parents of kids missing homework who are not doing well, but gives kids with a strong B or better much more slack. However, it is remarkable the correlation that virtually all the kids that do well on their exams do their homework, and it is something she shares with the class as a lesson early on, really relevant math. After some trial error, I get the impression that the standards based grading is working rather well. The only hard part is the really nice kids that try really hard, and still don’t get it. She tries to cut them some slack, but you still can’t make it on just a good work ethic. You have to figure out the math…. but I guess that’s the point, and its hard to explain to some parents with struggling children.

Posted by: Coloradoskier1 | December 16, 2010 2:12 PM | Report abuse

There is a fair amount of debate over the efficacy of homework -- the debate has been cyclical over the last century or so -- but I've never discussion before about its efficacy in terms of *parent* feedback. Instead, homework is primarily assigned (in most cases at least) as independent practice that takes more time than class time allows, which is then assessed by the teacher. One of the arguments against homework is that students receive enough "assistance" -- from parents, from peers -- that the final product turned in by students is not really an accurate picture of student progress, assuming it is turned in at all. Because of those diagnostic limitations, homework is viewed as a poor candidate for standards-based grading. In class quizzes, which are proctored, are viewed as more snapshots of student mastery.

That all said, were I an outsider conferencing with this parent I would make a few suggestions.

One, you could ask the teacher if there is any guided practice (such as old homework the teacher might have used in years past) that the student could work on. It would require a little extra work by the teacher but I would think most of them would try to help out a parent who wanted to work with their child.

Two, I would ask the teacher what his / her assessment is telling her about the student's progress: "in your opinion as the teacher, what are my child's strengths and weaknesses so far? Do you have any suggestions for how I can help my child?"

Three, I would use all those review guides and other handouts (which the parent sort of dismissed as not being useful) given to quiz the child over the material. At the risk of stating the obvious, using the review guide to quiz the student is a simple way for the parent to determine mastery and help remediate the child in areas where he/she is still weak.

Four, if the parent has a concern about a true disability (as the last paragraph suggests) they should ask about having the student tested by special education professionals. (If it's not a true disability, that's a dangerous and easily misunderstood misuse of the term in the article.) It's sort of unfair to blame that $550 on regular ed teachers who are not trained or qualified to make those sorts of diagnoses.

Posted by: joshofstl1 | December 16, 2010 2:36 PM | Report abuse

"However, it is remarkable the correlation that virtually all the kids that do well on their exams do their homework, and it is something she shares with the class as a lesson early on, really relevant math."

I find that very hard to believe, unless there's some other lurking factor.

I don't count homework; wouldn't even assign it except it gives me good cover with a student who whines that he "can't get it", and close to 80% of my top students never do their homework. That's been true three years running.

And that's high school math. Middle school math? Please. It defies credibility.

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 16, 2010 11:31 PM | Report abuse

gideon4ed describes the early sales-pitch definition of "standards based grading", and some parents might be trying to communicate with a school administration which has adopted his definition:

"The key is for the teacher to identify the specific skills or content to be learned, determine what levels of proficiency look like, and assess over time."

It sounds like River Bend is on to the next stage, though, because the teachers aren't being asked to "identify what levels of proficiency look like". Notice gideon talks only about assessment, not teaching or learning. The parent is trying to get information about her child's learning.

At its extreme, RTI is a "data-driven", proprietary, scripted teaching and assessing system. A computer assesses "mastery" of bulleted skills, and assigns appropriate remedial interventions, based on the endless, daily, almost hourly quizzes. Teachers decide nothing.

If River Bend is one of the few schools in the district to make AYP, my guess is that administrators have done what my district did. Did they assess their fifth graders, both for test scores and behavior, and offer parents of high-scorers the option of a "pre-AP" honors track at the middle school which is piloting their pet proprietary programs? That is one sure-fire way to get a blip of data showing how effective these programs are, at the same time the actual level of standardized test scores is dropping across the whole district. It explains why all the reformer's reports of breakthroughs are accumulating only to depressing overall score stagnation or decline.

I stopped at Barnes and Noble on my way home from work today (well, yesterday, technically) for coffee with a former student. He described his first-grade niece's report card, which reports scores of 1, 2 or 3 on each official standard. It is entirely computer-generated. There are some comments on the actual child, and he values those even though they came from a pull-down menu, because a living person has seen his niece through human eyes, before she pulled the menu down.

He didn't say what the numbers were; he wished he had brought it to show me. He is concerned for the children in the community, in any case. I taught him AP chemistry in his 16th year, when he was grieving the death of a beloved uncle, and now he's grown up and has become the uncle. He's the "first in the family" to get a university education, but in this economy it gives him no economic power (yet?), and he's in debt himself, of course. He'll be the one to go with his sister to talk to her teacher, and they face the same problem as our River Bend parent.

They want to talk about the little girl's learning, across this maze of assessment numbers, with the person who knows her and teaches her. The assessment numbers have no clue, as it turns out.

Posted by: mport84 | December 17, 2010 2:13 AM | Report abuse

Under IDEA '92, the school will be required to accommodate the LD student. As a learning disabled student that became a teacher, I can confirm that it's almost impossible to have some LD student's IEP and pop quizzes work together successfully. Especially in cases of severe dyslexia. I loathe regulated pop quizzes on principle; it's a class, not the TV show, "Jeopardy." And cutting parental assistance out of the picture by eliminating homework is ridiculous. The parent of a child with an IEP is the teacher's best ally; they have usually spent many years helping their child learn. They give the teacher advice on what they think works. Not having homework limits the parent's knowledge as to what is being taught and how.

Posted by: AShrew | December 17, 2010 10:07 AM | Report abuse

It probably wasn't the school's intent, but this is yet another practice that effectively cuts parents out of the education loop, promulgated at the same time that there are so many comments about how parents aren't making school a priority. Go figure. (And taken in concert with the recent column on schools not allowing students to bring home graded tests, part of a bigger picture.)

My child has a learning disability and struggled in math. Without some homework -- and the chance that gave us to work with her virtually every night, to re-explain concepts, to practice -- she'd have flunked. Repeatedly. Instead, she managed -- with the support of a whole lot of at home tutoring -- to pass the AP Calculus exam as a senior, which made life infinitely easier for her as a freshman in college.

In an ideal world, school would have been the organization that stepped in to help a struggling student with learning disabilities who needed extra help. But our affluent, high performing high school took a different approach: just enroll the student in basic level courses where there aren't high expectations and where the only focus is on doing the minimal amount to get students to at least partially proficient on the state exams - not even proficient. (Because partially proficient counts favorably for NCLB AYP in our state.)

I am sorry for the parent you wrote about, and my only suggestion would be for her to push very aggressively for an IEP with goals that require the family to be notified a week in advance of the specific material to be covered the following week and a sample of the types of questions that will be on each quiz so that the mom can work with her child.

Posted by: bk0512 | December 17, 2010 10:11 AM | Report abuse

It sounds like it may be too rigid and formal an application of formative assessments. The idea is to regularly check on kids' progress in order to help them, not judge them. Checking on kids in class could be more useful, because it gives more immediate feedback and the teacher is available to give help, than giving homework.

Posted by: ericalaska | December 17, 2010 1:27 PM | Report abuse

As a poster already zoomed in on I also have a problem with a child having a "learning disability" but the mother feels confused about the learning? Sadly I wonder the nature of the disability because too many children with difficult learning levels are "labelled" disabled when in fact it's the parent contributing to the problem!!! Like another poster stated why isn't this child in a special education class if he/she has a disability?

Thats something else about this story that bothers me. I've never had a teacher refuse to tell me about my girls learning? I read report cards, helped with assignments at home so I knew my daughter's learning levels. One daughter still tells the story how I tested their reading levels by having them read newspaper articles on foreign policy. These ALWAYS had words above their grade levels. hahahaha

Posted by: MDlady2 | December 17, 2010 3:07 PM | Report abuse

I am the parent in this article. I appreciate all the posts giving suggestions, examples and support. A few made some comments I wish to address. First, my child does have a learning disability, but because it is not severe, i.e. she does not get Ds and Fs, the school system says she doesn't qualify for an IEP, thus the need for outside testing. I am a former teacher and worked with hundreds of students so I can recognize a learning disability. My child is considered by teachers to be bright and eager to learn, but they all agree she struggles with written testing. Because she is a visual and tactile learner, I convert all her written notes and worksheets into these modalities for her to study.
To the person who posted that I should communicate with her teachers - I have sent emails constantly, made phone calls, observed classes and had personal meetings with nearly every teacher. They know of her problems and they know I want to help. Some have been very helpful, others not. She went from a C+ in a class first quarter to a D- on her interim. I never received a single notification that she was doing poorly. She does not get back quizzes. Teachers show them to the student, then take them back. I never see them. And only 2 teachers give homework, which by the way are the subjects she is doing the best in. I don't care if homework is graded or not, I just want to see her do it, so I can see what she doesn't get.
I gave up a good career that I loved to help my child and until this new grading system she was starting to do well. She now studies 2 or more hours a night for quizzes & tests, to the point of exhaustion. Someone mentioned that in Standards Based grading, the teachers could use other forms of assessments. This school is not allowing any other forms of assessment to count for more than 10%; labs, presentations, projects etc.
One thing I want to make very clear is that this isn't just about my daughter. She is only one of millions of kids that are in between high achievers and low achievers. A psychologist told me that bright students who struggle with a disability, but don't fail are generally ignored by the school system. The sad part is that many eventually give up because the struggle is too hard to bear. That's why I have become an advocate against how this program is being administered. Kids don't fit into a mold, so a variety of assessments allows them a means to demonstrate their knowledge.
To the parent who said I was potentially the problem, I got sick and my child had to study for a test on her own. She studied and failed it. She'll now retake it after I have helped her and she will likely pass it. Rather than me being a problem, her teachers have told me she is fortunate to have a parent who cares so much to teach her strategies so she can succeed in spite of her disability. They wish more parents got so involved. I will continue to help my child succeed and I will continue to advocate for a better educational system.

Posted by: RBarticleparent | December 17, 2010 5:16 PM | Report abuse

great comments, extremely helpful. I particularly liked mport84, and special thanks to RBarticleparent for telling us the first person story, from her own perspective. Nothing could be more valuable to our debate.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 17, 2010 5:39 PM | Report abuse

great comments, extremely helpful. I particularly liked mport84, and special thanks to RBarticleparent for telling us the first person story, from her own perspective. Nothing could be more valuable to our debate.

Posted by: Jay Mathews | December 17, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Hi Jay-
I agree with you about the problems of standards-based testing and the concerns of classrooms moving to frequent quizzes and tests for assessment. I'm a teacher and I am a big proponent of teaching skills rather than facts in my class. I don't really care if a student knows what date this battle happened and where. I care more about students being able to discuss with peers, read a primary document, analyze a newspaper article, critically think and reflect, etc. I think that this is something that the standards based quizzes and tests leave out. Before I teach my students, I always ask, how will this lesson help them in the future. Unless they're on Jeopardy or Millionaire, I don't feel like the students really need to know what I call, "trivia" facts. The things that students need to have when they leave my class are the skills to figure things out and be productive citizens in society. These skills will stay with them so much longer than facts or information ever will. Think back to your education days, what things do you remember? You'll remember the social aspects and the projects that you did. Projects give students more choice, skills, and authentic learning than a traditional test.

Posted by: stucy002 | December 18, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

One question: what does this teacher do with the student (and there is sure to be at least one) who never studies or pays attention in class and still makes 100% on all the quizzes? All the posts center on the students who are having trouble under standard-bases grading. What if we gave the final test, over all the material, at several times throughout the year and told students any who passed could go to the library and read during that period for the rest of the year, or could go to a higher level in that subject? I'll bet grades would rise and students would work really hard to get out of a class. As it is, getting a good grade doesn't get you anything but a good grade.

Posted by: sideswiththekids | December 20, 2010 10:52 AM | Report abuse

"What if we gave the final test, over all the material, at several times throughout the year and told students any who passed could go to the library and read during that period for the rest of the year, or could go to a higher level in that subject?"

Why are we teaching kids that class if they know the material? Ah, but that's the debate on tracking. Been paying attention much?

Posted by: Cal_Lanier | December 20, 2010 5:25 PM | Report abuse

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