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Shanahan on Literacy

Timothy Shanahan

Literacy expert Timothy Shanahan shares best practices for teaching reading and writing. Dr. Shanahan is an internationally recognized professor of urban education and reading researcher who has extensive experience with children in inner-city schools and children with special needs. All posts are reprinted with permission from Shanahan on Literacy.

Report Cards and Standards

July 29, 2015

From a teacher:

I wanted to ask your opinion regarding the structure of report cards for parents of students in grades 3-5. Understanding that ELA CCSS intertwines the areas of reading, language, spelling, writing, and moving toward creating district standards-based report cards in all K-5 grade levels, how do you think students' progress should be reported out to parents via report cards, as we transition? Would you recommend having an ELA grade on the report card or segregating particular areas as a stand alone grade?

My response:

This is less a research question than one requiring professional judgment. I suspect there are many good ways to do this, but I will weigh in with my own take on the problem per your request. My suggestions are based upon what I think teachers and parents can do and use, not on what studies suggest for the simple reason that I know of no such studies.

I definitely would provide students with more than a single English Language Arts grade. Lots of ways to do this, of course: One could provide an overall ELA grade with some subscores, or ELA might not appear at all and just specific scores in reading, writing, and some other key areas could be included. I would personally go with the latter, just to keep it simpler.

What grades would I provide? I definitely would offer a reading grade. In fact, I’d offer two of them. I’d give students a grade in reading foundations (which would be used to inform parents as to how their kids were doing with decoding and oral reading fluency), and a grade in reading (which would get at issues like reading comprehension, understanding of different genres, learning from reading, etc.). That's divided in the same way the reading standards are in CCSS.

I would also provide a grade for writing and, again, it would be possible to divide this one in two — writing foundations and writing (which is not how the standards do it). The first writing grade would get at issues of spelling, cursive, keyboarding, and "hygiene" (the old term for basically making a paper look good in terms of all of these physical qualities), and the second would get at writing quality (how well-developed and organized and accurate and engaging the student's writing is).

Finally, you might have a language grade aimed at what the standards address under speaking, listening, and language. This would include grammar, along with listening comprehension, ability to make formal presentations, to participate effectively in group discussions, and the like. While I would not disagree with those who would criticize lumping this all into one pot, I am doubtful of teachers’ ability to easily evaluate 30 students in any of these skills separately. (And, yes, you could slice this differently. For example, you could include grammar in what I labeled as writing foundations, and keep this language or oral language grade totally about oral language quality).

That might be it. Under this plan, students would get 3-5 ELA grades (1 or 2 reading grades, 1 or 2 writing grades, and 1 language or oral language grade). If you break something out on a report card, you are making some assumptions: one assumption is that teachers can provide a sound and accurate evaluation of the abilities included in that category; a second assumption is independence, that it would be possible for a youngster to do well in one category and poorly in another; and a third is that it would be worth opening up a conversation with parents about the topic if Johnny didn’t do well in it (in other words, there would be clear remedial actions that a teacher and parents could take to help him to do better in that area). Gradability, independence, and teachability are the key factors.

Many districts try to align their report cards to their standards, but what this usually means is that the report card ends up with so many grades that teachers are uncertain of (e.g., "I have no idea whether kids have accomplished reading standard 4 for literary text") and parents have no idea what to do with all of this information. If the information won’t be accurate — and there is no way that teachers can adequately evaluate all of those individual standards — and won’t be useful for aiming teachers and parents at addressing student needs, then there is no reason to have it on the report card.

Given that, let me encourage you to consider adding one more grading category to ELA report card. One thing the standards emphasize a lot — not just in one category but in multiple ones — is the ability to conduct research. That is, students need to learn to track down information, to evaluate its accuracy and quality, to summarize information from particular sources, to synthesize information across sources, and to present that information accurately and engagingly. Different aspects of that process belong to reading (evaluating sources) or writing (summarizing or synthesizing) or oral language (presenting). However, if research were treated as its own category, it would encourage your school to make a big deal of it; to get students, parents, and teachers all engaged in ensuring that these diverse ELA skills come together into a powerful amalgam that would send kids off to middle school with a strong academic focus. That would only add one more grade to the pot, but it would be a heck of an addition, and it fits my criteria: it is gradable, independent, and well worth focusing on instructionally at school and home.

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"Reading should not be presented to children as a chore or duty. It should be offered to them as a precious gift." — Kate DiCamillo