On Columbus Day, the Westfield Public Schools plan to offer parents 24-hour online access to student marks as they are entered into teachers’ electronic grade books. A district committee has set guidelines for the number of assessments that should be included per marking period, and the frequency at which teacher grade books should be updated. As the plan stands now, students will not have access to their own grades unless their parents permit them to do so—something many parents will be reluctant to do because the system is currently configured to show real-time grade reporting for all siblings in a given family: a student would not only be able to see her own marks, but also her twin brother’s.
Letter to the Editor
As a member of the high school community, I can say that many of us see this change as a sudden departure from our educational philosophy. Last year, WHS faculty collaborated to develop a mission statement that declares, “We are a community rooted in a tradition of academic excellence entrusted to develop critical thinking, curiosity, and originality. We create scholarly opportunities and inspire wonder. The heart of our purpose is to reinforce ethical responsibility, promote personal integrity, and instill a life-long passion for learning. We empower each student to embark upon the world and to embrace the challenges of living a spirited, balanced life.” These are the aims we believe should be at the center of conversations about school—not just test scores and lab grades.
Grades do matter, but they are at best partial indicators of real learning. And they tell virtually nothing about personal development. This growth is much better presented in conversations between teachers and students, students and parents, and parents and teachers. Such dialogue can provide valuable context about which assignments and units reflect increasing mastery of which skills, and how most effectively to address areas of real concern. Allowing constant access to grades alone risks misrepresenting a student’s achievement at any given moment; it also distorts what matters most about education. Who gains by adding more grade-based pressure to the experience of school?
No one has made a persuasive case for changing our current system for reporting academic progress, i.e. four sets of interim comments and report card grades with comments, comprising eight updates per year. (Arguments such as “the technology is available” and “other districts are doing it” do not withstand even light scrutiny.) However, because there is a way to configure the “Grade Portal” such that students could have access to their own grades, there is a case to be made consonant with the district’s Strategic Plan 2010-2015 that calls Student Personal Development its second goal, including the objective to “promote student self-advocacy.” Unfortunately, as it stands now, only parents will be granted access—a strange means to prepare students to be the “well-balanced and responsible citizens” described in the District Mission Statement.
Given that many students as well as teachers feel that their position was not given due consideration, I propose we slow down and think through this as an academic community that values personal as well as intellectual development. For now, let the “Grade Portal” be opened, but first only for viewing interim reports and report card grades, which would save paper and postage costs as opposed to printing and mailing these documents. Teachers would remain available to discuss progress with students and parents. Meanwhile, we can sort out issues such as what to do about families that do not have online access, and make time for the important district-wide conversation that has not yet happened involving all stakeholders—students, parents, teachers, counselors, and administrators—about the most responsible use of the available technology at each level of our school system.