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Schools now require letter grades for kindergarten students

Ohanian Comment: Read this entire article, as the outrage just builds. I teared up when I read what's being done to five year olds. Train children early that they are unworthy, that they don't measure up to corporate demands. Can you imagine: "Johnny, you got a D+ on Show and Tell today."

To make an A, kindergartners at Mobile's E.R. Dickson Elementary School, for example, must speak in complete sentences during show-and-tell and use descriptive words.
Note: Teachers, the people who know a lot about young children, were told of the new policy in August. Were told.

Maybe anyone who can say "It's like a prescription. You see where your problem areas are and you reteach" has been at Central Office for too long. Here's one loony this formula is:
"Before, if my kids wrote, 'Apples are red,' I was excited," Wingard said. "But if they write that same sentence in the week when we're writing narratives" they get a low grade. "It's descriptive, not narrative."

In Mobile do they have a rule that narrative writing can't include descriptive words? Gee, did Henry David Thoreau write narrative or descriptive? And should kindergartners care about such artificial, nonsensical distinctions?

Kudos to 24-year-veteran teacher Vivian Schultz for speaking up. And to Phyllis Wingard, former Alabama Elementary Teacher of the Year.

By Rena Havner

Kindergartners in Mobile County's public schools may not yet know all of their ABC's, but now the students are required to receive actual letter grades in every subject almost weekly.

It's part of a new systemwide requirement that has teachers redoing the way they assess kindergartners.

To make an A, students at Mobile's E.R. Dickson Elementary School, for example, must speak in complete sentences during show-and-tell and use descriptive words.

Points are lost if the teacher has to prompt the student to speak.

"They're not going to make a 100 if I have to say, 'And then what did you do with it?'" said Vivian Schultz, who has been teaching kindergarten for 24 years and has some concerns with the new grading policy.

Schultz and some other kindergarten teachers have voiced frustration over the new requirements, pointing out that these same kids are just now learning to sit still during class and to tie their shoes.

School system officials say the new grading procedure better prepares the students for first grade and beyond. And, because teachers must often post the grades online, parents are able to keep up with how well their children are performing.

Mobile County Public School System officials said they derived the new rules for grading kindergartners from a policy adopted by the Mobile County school board in 1974. That policy states that students of all ages must be graded in a way that is easy for parents, students and teachers to understand whether progress is being made.

From there, a committee of educators came up with the new grading guidelines, said Diane Allgood, an early childhood resource teacher who works at the school system's central offices at Barton Academy.

Students now must take a test or receive some kind of other major grade almost weekly in five key subjects: reading, language, math, science and social studies. The students make actual number grades, such as a 95 or an 82, that are assigned a letter value, either A, B, C, or M (which stands for meeting "minimal" standards). M is the lowest grade kindergartners can receive.

Teachers were told of the new policy, Schultz said, in August as they returned to school a few days before their students. They had to adjust their lesson plans accordingly.

The result, said Schultz: "Teach, teach; test. Teach, teach; test."

Allgood said the grades don't necessarily have to be the results of tests. She said teachers can give out grades based on their observations of how the students are doing in class. Teachers can also grade students on classroom activities that demonstrate the skills.

To see if kindergarten students recognize capital and lowercase letters, for example, Allgood said, teachers could print out letters. Students could then cut those letters out and match the lowercase "a" with the uppercase "A."

Assessing students more often this way could help teachers know which skills the children are grasping and what they need to spend more time teaching, Allgood said.

"It's like a prescription. You see where your problem areas are and you reteach," she said.

Allgood said some teachers have expressed opposition to the new grading requirement because it's different from what they're accustomed to. "It's hard, like any change," she said.

While the policy is in effect for kindergarten through 12th grades, teachers of the youngest students seem to be the most upset. A group of kindergarten teachers from E.R. Dickson -- not including Schultz -- attended a school board meeting a few months back to voice their displeasure with the policy, which required them to start grading students in the second week of school. A few weeks later, retired teacher Diane Martin addressed the board, saying that she was speaking on behalf of kindergarten teachers who were afraid to voice opposition. "These students need to be learning how to stand in line and how to hold a cafeteria tray. If they don't know the color green, does that mean they failed?" Martin said. "We need to get them in there learning, excited about school, not worrying about if they made a zero."

Mobile County school board members have said they weren't aware of the new policy until the E.R. Dickson teachers addressed them and that they will look into it.

The new procedure requires teachers to grade students nine times a quarter in both reading and math, six times a quarter in both science and social studies and 10 times a quarter in language arts, which includes oral language, such as show-and-tell.

By contrast, in Baldwin County Public Schools kindergarten report cards resemble a checklist of skills that are marked as the student having mastered them or not. The students receive a "G" for making appropriate progress, an "N" if they need more instruction and an asterisk if that skill has not yet been taught.

There are 51 total items on the checklist in reading, math and other areas, such as whether the students use scissors and glue correctly and if they can hop and skip.

Baldwin teachers are not required to give students a certain number of grades in every subject, said schools spokesman Terry Wilhite. Instead, teachers assess students at the end of each quarter.

"It's dependent upon the teacher and the learning process of the class and the child," Wilhite said.

Krista Pitts, a teacher at McDavid-Jones Elementary near Citronelle, said she supports Mobile County's new grading method because parents can better understand a letter grade.

In past years, teachers assigned students a number grade on a scale of 1 to 4, with 4 being the highest.

"Basically, we were just giving a skills report," Pitts said. "That was difficult for the parents because they were always trying to make it equal to an A, B, C or D."

Pitts said she also does not mind the requirement that she issue a certain number of grades per quarter. That helps her stay on track, she said.

Lisa Huggins, who teaches kindergarten with Pitts at McDavid-Jones, said that by grading the kindergartners now, teachers will better prepare them for first grade.

"We're using the word 'test.' It's a word they get used to, and they'll realize it's not a scary thing," Huggins said. "At the end of the year, they'll be right there where first grade needs them."

Huggins said the outcry about the kindergarten grading method reminds her of the resistance by some teachers three years ago to the school system's implementation of standardized quarterly tests known as CRTs, or Criterion Referenced Tests.

Those tests are administered at all schools, for kindergarten through 12th grades, and count as much as 20 percent of a student's report card grade.

Teachers and parents initially criticized the CRTs, pointing to factual errors on some of the exams and saying that students are being forced to take too many standardized tests.

Those comments have quieted over the last few years, some have said, as teachers have found that the tests can be useful in evaluating how much progress their students are making.

Still, for many teachers, giving kindergarten students letter grades goes against everything they were taught in college and have learned from years in the classroom, said Phyllis Wingard, a veteran kindergarten teacher of 27 years, who's now at Hollinger's Island Elementary School.

"Kindergarten was never set up to be this way," Wingard said. "All of my kindergarten children used to like school, but when you're testing them every week, they're not going to."

Wingard said she knows a 5-year-old student who was put on restriction recently and another who was taken off a baseball team because of bad grades.

"How can you be a failure your first quarter of school? That shouldn't happen," said Wingard, who was Alabama's Elementary Teacher of the Year in 1997.

Wingard said some children walk into kindergarten ready for its challenges. Some, though, come in not knowing their colors or how to recognize any of the letters in their name.

Regardless of where they're coming from, they all must be graded the same way. And the standards are getting stricter.

Wingard said her students are not only having to learn how to write sentences but how to classify those sentences as being narrative, descriptive or expository.

"Before, if my kids wrote, 'Apples are red,' I was excited," Wingard said. "But if they write that same sentence in the week when we're writing narratives" they get a low grade. "It's descriptive, not narrative."

Back at E.R. Dickson, Schultz said she loves her job but that this has been the most frustrating change she has had to make in 24 years. Teachers were already assessing students -- oftentimes through classroom observation.

Now they have to give up instructional time to give students tests that they can't even read, she said.

Recently, after her students finished studying the story "Three Billy Goats Gruff," Schultz read aloud test questions and had her students circle a picture corresponding to the answer. The questions centered around the plot, setting and outcome of the story.

"We are grading too much, too soon," Schultz said. "Let's slow down a little bit. Let's give them time to adjust to this big place called school."

— Rena Havner
Mobil Press-Register




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