Brandon school eyes narrative report cards

BRANDON — A snapshot can tell a short story, but a photo album can weave a longer, more enriching tale.
That is the philosophy behind the Otter Valley Union High School Moosalamoo Center’s concept of narrative report cards versus traditional letter or number grades.
Two of the Brandon center’s students, Harley Fjeld and Andrew Fusco, recently appeared with Beth Wiser, director of admissions at the University of Vermont, and Greg Young, coordinator for the South Burlington High School Big Picture Program, in presenting the narrative report card to members of the Consortium of Vermont Colleges. The presentation centered on the need for schools to reevaluate how a student’s mastery of content and their ability to use that knowledge in “real world” settings is determined.
Jason Finley, Moosalamoo’s place-based educator, said the idea of narrative report cards has been percolating for a few years since the center sent out e-mails to every Vermont college and university asking what they thought were the advantages and disadvantages would be.
“The concept they thought was great,” Finely said. “But they were something of a hindrance so we chose not to use them because we didn’t want to hurt our students.”
The problem is while narrative report cards give college admission personnel a much larger and detailed view of what a student is capable of, they take much longer to read through than a standard report card.
“I can completely sympathize with admissions departments saying there is no way they can read seven pages on each student,” Finley said. “We want something clear and concise.”
The traditional system relies heavily on demonstrating what students know but does little to reveal how well they can put that knowledge to use. The students’ presentation and discussion was highlighted by how authentic assessments offer a detailed and accurate picture of their ability to use knowledge in actual situations.
It was established that traditional assessments lack authenticity, that students feel that their efforts result in little consequence or meaning, and that these tests do not instill a sense of personal responsibility.
It was also acknowledged that it is very difficult for teachers to document and college admissions to interpret a student’s level of classroom participation and interpersonal skills, their mastery of the subject content, and their overall performance with a simple and single letter grade.
Fjeld gave examples and spoke to the authenticity provided to her education through Otter Valley’s new Place-based Learning Opportunities program. She shared how she was required to blend components of service learning, state standards, and her own interests. As a result of this work, she will be presenting areas of concern regarding developmental issues of adolescents related to their academic, social and emotional needs when transitioning into high school.
While the teachers recognize the amount of effort that goes into such a project and the amount of understanding that comes from it, it is nearly impossible with a traditional report card to communicate how her knowledge translates into comprehension and application. Her project is a perfect example of how knowledge and skills are inseparable.
Fusco focused on the multi-grade-level environmental program that sees Moosalamoo students’ own knowledge assessed as they lead elementary students through learning activities and hands-on science workshops.
The student-led workshop that Fusco centered his discussion on was one that he led. This workshop looked at brook trout as an indicator of the health of ecosystems and biodiversity. He emphasized that simply having knowledge of a topic is much different than being able to synthesize, communicate and relate that knowledge — all while being interesting and entertaining.
Both Otter Valley students demonstrated that their comprehension and understanding of the material were based on a strong knowledge of the subject they were studying. However, the current system of letter grades simply acknowledges that they have memorized a set of information and does little to address their motivation and drive, their ability to reflect on and apply knowledge in various contexts, or any of the 21st century skills demanded by colleges and employers.
Moosalamoo teachers Michele Cioffredi and Finley stressed to the audience of college admissions officers and high school guidance counselors that until there is statewide consensus on a standardized means of providing a complete and accurate picture of a student’s ability to use knowledge, there will never be widespread demand for reform to the current system.
Finley said the center has talked to the state Department of Education’s Transformation Policy Committee about looking into the matter and developing a better system that would give college admissions departments a better, overall view of a student’s capabilities and grasp of material.
“We thought, schools give so many assessments, we’d like to show a student’s skill base, including interpersonal skills, because there’s no way of knowing, there’s no way of accounting for growth,” Finley said.
The educator said that another hurdle is the perception that somehow narrative report card curriculums are inferior and less challenging than the traditional model.
“There is a stigma that, unfortunately, those schools that use narrative report cards are considered less rigorous,” Finley said.

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