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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, February 19, 2007

New learning lingo leaves some in dark

StoryChat: Comment on this story

By Beverly Creamer
Advertiser Education Writer


Common terms that parents, grandparents and students are encountering in Hawai'i's public schools:

Rubric: A guide telling the student what is expected and how to achieve a certain grade

Exemplar: A student's example of an answer that shows what has been done to achieve a grade of MP (meets proficiency) or ME (meets with excellence)

Benchmarks: Skills the student needs for each grade level in each of the nine subject areas: career and technical education, fine arts, health, language arts, math, physical education, science, social studies and world languages

Assessment: A written or oral test

Constructed response: An answer on a test or homework assignment that could include writing, illustrations, charts, graphs and other forms of description to show how the answer was achieved

Prompt: A problem or homework assignment

'General Learner Outcomes'

Six goals recited by Leilani Nautu's fourth-grade students at Ka'a'awa Elementary each day after the Pledge of Allegiance:

  • Self-directed learner

  • Community contributor

  • Complex thinker

  • Quality producer

  • Effective communicator

  • Effective and ethical user of technology

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    Don't call it a homework question. Call it a "prompt."

    Don't refer to scoring guidelines. Call them "rubrics."

    Don't call them tests. Call them "assessments."

    Along with "standards-based education" the new millennium's battle cry for ramping up the quality of K-12 education has come a standards-based vocabulary that's leaving some scratching their heads.

    Ted Green of Ka'a'awa is one of them. When Green looked at his 9-year-old granddaughter's math homework assignment recently, he thought it was a lesson plan for the teacher that the fourth-grader had brought home by mistake.

    No, said his granddaughter, Siobhan Cooper. It was math homework to be done by her. By the next day.

    Grandpa was astonished.

    "That language is sure not for a fourth-grade kid," he said of the complex instructions at the top of the homework paper. "Who would dream up a thing like that?"

    Your state Department of Education, Mr. Green. Not to mention, your federal government.

    With the headlong rush to bring all of the nation's schoolchildren up to proficiency in core subjects by 2014, states are adopting their own brands of standard-based curriculums, along with the language to go with them.

    In Hawai'i, that means the kids in public school classrooms are hearing about "rubrics" and "prompts" and "benchmark mapping." And the new language is showing up in class and homework assignments, parent-teacher conferences and even on classroom walls.

    It means that after saying the Pledge of Allegiance in Green's granddaughter's classroom, the children recite the "GLOs" General Learner Outcomes.

    Schools Superintendent Pat Hamamoto has asked that these six overarching educational goals be posted on the wall of every classroom in the state. Already young Siobhan talks confidently of becoming an "effective communicator" and "being responsible for your own learning."

    Even Hawai'i's report cards are getting the treatment, with the traditional A, B, C, D and F being eliminated in favor of ME, MP, N and U.

    The new report cards are in use in regular public elementary schools, and are scheduled to be tried out in secondary schools in 2009-10. But the secondary schools' implementation has been delayed to 2012-13, partially because of the rocky beginning the report cards had in the elementary schools in 2005.


    While the kids are catching on to all this or trying hard to some of their folks are having a tougher time of it.

    "Is this typical of the language and present-day methodology of the DOE?" asked Green. "Am I really from a different era? Or planet?"

    Well, yes.

    "The world is a much more complex place to live," said Todd Watanabe, principal of Ka'a'awa Elementary, the school that Green's granddaughter attends.

    "Much more is expected of us," said Watanabe about the education process. "And what we expect them to be able to do is so much greater than what we did."

    Kathy Kawaguchi, assistant superintendent for the Office of Curriculum, Instruction and Student Support, agreed.

    "It's something that's novel to adults perhaps," said Kawaguchi, "because it's not part of our educational experience. However, it's not novel to students."

    Before Siobhan's homework paper got to the math problem, it outlined what the fourth-grader would need to do to receive the grade she wanted.

    It began: "Please see the following rubric to determine what grade you would like to receive.

    "4 (points) The response contains a solution. It shows complete understanding of the concepts and skills. It addresses all the parts of the prompt. Reasoning is logical. Conclusions are clearly communicated and justified. Computations and procedures are correct."

    And it went on from there, listing what was expected if the student were to receive several less-than-perfect marks, as well.

    While the wording is in keeping with the DOE's standards-based education system, Green worries that the standards have run amok.

    However, last year all of Leilani Nautu's fourth-grade math students in Green's granddaughter's class did well on state and national standardized tests, scoring at proficiency or coming close. And his granddaughter did the complex homework perfectly for a full 4 points.

    As students get older, they take all the new language pretty much in stride, said Lindsey Nakashima, a Kalaheo High School senior who chaired the State Student Conference this year. Nakashima first met rubrics and standards in seventh grade and now hardly notices them. "It's not advertised as much," said Nakashima. "The students in high school really don't notice."

    By then kids are pretty comfortable with all the new words and have digested rubrics fairly well.

    "When I first got introduced to it, it was, like, 'What's a rubric and why do we need to use it?' " she said. "After the teacher gave us the assignment and we looked at the rubric together, we all understood it. They told us it's a grading tool they use. It helps ... to know what's going to get you that high grade."


    Department personnel say teachers have the choice to use adult wording as long as they explain it or convert the language to something more kid-friendly. "If they give it straight to the kids without any explanation or discussion, then it might be confusing," said Wesley Yuu, the state's educational specialist for mathematics.

    Yuu has prepared kid-friendly versions if teachers want them. And he said that while the wording Nautu gave her students was designed for teachers, and can be used by them with explanations he generally expects teachers to rewrite it to their students' comprehension level.

    "What we would like teachers to do is involve students in the self-assessment of their work," Yuu said. "We want students to understand what they're being graded on.

    "The idea is that grading student work is not secretive. We want students to get 4s, so we tell them what it takes to get a 4.

    "We want students to be problem solvers and not just doing 'drill and kill' arithmetic."

    Assistant superintendent Kawaguchi said she tends to favor kid-friendly language for the lower grades, but also supports teachers who want to teach to the higher level of adult language.

    "Maybe there hasn't been time to customize it in kid-friendly language," she said. "The benchmark maps with the rubrics have only been out six months."

    To help families understand what's going on in the classrooms, Nautu invites parents to informal sessions with their children. The whole family gets a chance to share the new language and ask questions. She also sends out a newsletter, as many other teachers and principals do.

    Watanabe believes as long as teachers, like Nautu, explain and teach the new vocabulary appropriately, students will thrive.

    "We wouldn't just throw it at them and say, 'Good luck,' " he said.

    Reach Beverly Creamer at bcreamer@honoluluadvertiser.com.