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How to Get What You Want from the Teacher

Mastering Grade-Speak
The biggest waste of time in the parent-teacher conference occurs when the teacher has to explain the grading and testing systems. The exact meaning of terms like rubric, stanine, and standardized test confound many parents and frustrate quite a few teachers as well. Grading systems differ from state to state and even from district to district, but most use variations of the following.

Rubric. A rubric is a list of the skills needed to master a subject at a particular grade level. It is meant to clarify to both the child and the teacher exactly what is expected of the child by the end of the school year. Rubrics are usually broken down into four scoring levels:

1 = not proficient
2 = partially proficient
3 = proficient
4 = advanced

Sometimes the rubric score is used as a grade, especially in early elementary years. For older children, rubrics are used as "scoring devices" that are a partial basis for letter grades. There is no nationwide standard for rubrics – sometimes the school district provides them and sometimes teachers devise their own. In public schools, the district's rubrics for each grade level are usually available from the teacher or the front office.

Standardized Test (Stanford 9, Iowa, AIMS, TAAS, CAT, etc.). Standardized tests assess how well a student is learning. There is no national test; each state is free to select or devise its own. States also differ as to which grade levels must be tested. At the parent-teacher conference you can ask whether your child will be tested and if there is anything you should do to help him or her prepare.

Percentile rank. Percentile rank is a way of comparing a child's scores to those of children in a "norm group" who took the standardized test when it was being developed. If your child has a percentile rank of 80, it means that 80 percent of the children in the norm group got a lower score than your child. Being in the eightieth percentile does not mean that your child answered 80 percent of the questions correctly.

Stanine. Stanines are the most baffling of the scoring systems. The word is short for "standard nine" and refers to the nine sections of a bell curve into which a child's test results may fall. A stanine of 1, 2, or 3 is below average; 4, 5, or 6 is average; and 7, 8, or 9 is above average. Each stanine number indicates a range of performance, not a specific score.

Entrance into G.A.T.E. (Gifted and Talented Education) programs often depends on a child's stanine score. You can ask the teacher what the rules are in your school district, but don't squander too much of your conference time on the topic. You can squander time later when you research it online or compare notes with other confused parents.

There is much controversy about the value of yearly standardized testing, particularly in the early grades, because young children learn at vastly different rates. A 1999 study conducted by the Michigan Association for Early Childhood Teachers found that only 58 percent of teachers believe test scores are useful when conferring with parents. The scores remain a focal point of parent-teacher conferences because parents expect to see them and because it's more time-efficient to show a list of a fourth grader's scores than it is to dissect his essay. If test scores, class work, and your child's behavior are all worrisome, the teacher will certainly give you a heads-up. However, if only his test scores are problematic, it may simply be that he is stressed out about taking standardized tests. Many young children are. Ask the teacher how other children are doing in comparison to yours, and ask if she thinks your child needs extra help.


From Say the Magic Words by Lynette Padwa. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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