“Do I go to 3rd grade next year?”
“Absolutely! But we’ve been talking about that, and I thought you knew you would. What makes you ask?
“My mom said maybe I won’t ‘cuz I don’t have all As.”
The upturned eyes filled with uncertainty that accompany this exchange break my heart. This English learner has worked like crazy all year. He began this 2nd grade year reading books at a pre-kindergarten level, and learned to read books leveled for the end of first grade - growth of about 2 years. Unfortunately for his life in the school system, he is still a year below grade level. And it never fails. There is always someone’s parent (or significant adult) who tells them they won’t be passing because they don’t have As. With these kids I sit down again to review their growth. We look at writing samples, and talk about how they’ve developed as a writer. I show the books they were reading at the beginning of the year, and the books they can now read, and we look at the differences. We talk about all the abilities they didn’t have when they started 2nd grade, and all the things they can do now. We talk about their progress, how far they need to go, and the skills they have to get there.
My ELL students and I spend 9 months together - learning, growing, and changing, and report cards are my least favorite part of teaching. The piece of paper, which stands as my district’s formal indicator of progress cannot possibly tell the whole story, and the inherent gaps are frequently filled with the honest misunderstanding of my student’s parents.
So, what’s the solution? I do wish there was an easy one. As long as my district is going to ask for report cards with letter grades, I would love to have a rubric that could factor in language acquisition and academic growth along with a child’s ability and spit out a letter grade that fairly represented the work done by my students. I watch my students every year make huge gains in reading, in speaking, in writing, and yet, based on the assessments I must give they are below their peers- garnering D’s. One of the many issues I have with this is that my 2nd grade students can make one to two years worth of growth in a year’s time, but I must sometimes record on their report cards that they are below grade level…which may be true, but it seems so unfair.
At parent conferences I can show my students and parents where a like aged, English only peer is supposed to be (which is the current measure). I can explain the steps in between where my ELL student is, and where he or she needs to be. I can tell parents about how much their child has grown over the course of the year, and the skill sets they have developed that will continue to serve them in the coming years. I can explain that an "A" is not the only acceptable letter grade, and that a "D" doesn't mean the child hasn't made progress. I can write in the comment section of the report card so that next year’s teacher will know exactly what each child has accomplished, and if they stay in my school, I can pass on writing samples and other student work.
But the letter grades on the report card still stand as the measure, and the letter grades are still how most adults understand achievement. My hope is that someday, if we keep thinking through this puzzle, we will find a way to fairly represent growth, and I can rest over the summer knowing that everyone knows how amazing my 2nd grade ELL students really are.