The Los Angeles Unified School District is dropping A-to-F letter grades in favor of a 4-to-1 rating system for all elementary students, officials said Tuesday, calling it a more precise gauge of academic progress and an effort to more closely adhere to state standards.
Under the new system, already in use at year-round schools and due to be expanded districtwide next month, a top score of 4 means a student is "advanced, exceeds standards." A grade of 1 means "not proficient," 2 is "partially proficient" and 3 "meets standards."
A key fault of the five-letter grading system is a tendency for teachers to give out Cs, which don't clearly indicate proficiency levels in core subjects, said Geri Herrera, the district's director of core curriculum. "With a four-point scale, either they do or they don't. It's much more precise."
Some parents and education experts attacked the plan, however, questioning the district's ability to implement it and decrying the demise of time-honored letter grades.
"I don't see what is wrong with A, B, C, D and F," said Sue Gwin, PTA president at Kentwood Elementary in Westchester. "For fourth and fifth, it should be grades. It's like new math, we change it each year, but it is still adding, subtracting and dividing. It's still the same thing, but we are saying it's different."
A state education official said number grades are not required, and have been adopted by only a few districts.
LAUSD officials said the new evaluation system is the best way to consistently appraise the district's 400,000 students in kindergarten through fifth grade. (Sixth-graders at 17 elementary schools also would be affected.)
Officials said the plan would eliminate pluses and minuses--officially dropped by the district in the late '80s but still widely used by teachers to augment letter grades.
Currently, most students in kindergarten through third grade don't receive A-F letter grades; fourth- and fifth-graders receive A's through Fs only for an overall grade.
Middle and high schools will retain the old system in order to mesh with college-admission requirements, officials said.
"The real purpose of this is to have teachers give their best evaluation of whether a student has mastered the particular standard," said Bob Collins, district assistant superintendent of curriculum instruction and assessment. "It is very definite and very precise."
In the past, Collins said, parents complained when an initial evaluation said their child "shows growth" but the final grade could end up as a D. The new number grades, delivered every four to five weeks, will be more specific than letters in showing whether students are meeting standards for math, language arts and reading.
Some education experts questioned whether the district can pull off such a massive overhaul of its grading system so quickly.
"If you are the LAUSD, with its back up to the wall and the community suspicious about community effectiveness, why wouldn't you have a press conference with officials, parents, teachers to announce this?" asked Mike Roos, who headed the reform effort LEARN for eight years. "In a district not as hammered as the LAUSD, we would probably be applauding this. This is a more strict indicator of how our children are doing."
According to Herrera, the number system was developed through a long process that included task force meetings and school teams. It was part of the standards-based promotion program adopted this spring, she said.
The new number grades will also form the core of the district's "electronic report card," which will be compiled in March and include all of the district's students and schools, "telling us instantly how many students are at risk for not being promoted," Collins said.
Under the new system, most students who receive a grade below 3 in reading or other key subjects will not be promoted, officials said.
Number grades are not state mandated, said Doug Stone, spokesman for the California Department of Education. He said the new method can work, but the LAUSD must ensure that it is uniformly administered across the district with sufficient teacher training.
"So will a 4 in urban L.A. mean the same in suburban L.A.?" Stone asked. "Also, kids need to know the objectives, as do parents and teachers. How is the district communicating this system to parents? It can be an empowerment tool as long as all the dots are connected."
Board of Education member Victoria Castro said she supports the new system, but acknowledged that the district could have done a better job of explaining it to the public.
"The story is not going from A-B-C to 1-2-3, but in the content," she said. "What we have to be concerned about is telling the parent if their child is working up to standards."
Putting the district in sync with state and national standards, including a 4 to 1 grading system, is important, said Becki Robinson, elementary vice president of United Teachers Los Angeles, but the change has been too sudden.
"The district is moving too fast in implementing all of this," Robinson said. "For it to work, and to do what it is supposed to do, there must be training so that teachers understand and see each of these levels the same way. That you and I both agree what a 1 is and what a 4 is."
Times staff writer Doug Smith contributed to this story.
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New Grading System
The Los Angeles Unified School District will no longer evaluate elementary school children with letter grades. The new system uses a number rating of 1 to 4 and will eliminate the middle "C" grade that most parents consider an average grade. District policy in the late '80s was supposed to end the use of pluses and minuses (like B+ or A-); the new system will enforce that.