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There's an old, but often-played, song by the late Sam Cooke whose lyrics go, in part:
Now I don't claim to be an "A" student
But I'm trying to be.
And so are millions of other American children each school term. Being an "A" student signifies being the best, the smartest, the highest achiever. "B" means good but not best, "C" stands for average, "D" for below average, and either "E" or "F" for unsatisfactory, or to put it more harshly, failure.
But in hundreds, maybe thousands, of American schools, nobody's an A student any more. And the idea of getting "straight A's" - and thus being the best of the best - is gone as well. There aren't B or C or F students, either. Thanks to something called "standards-based" report cards, these students are receiving a numerical rating - a number instead of a letter - for their performance in each class.
Those numbers - usually 4 for best, down to 1 - reflect a lot more than just mastery of the subject matter. In a math class in New York State schools, for instance, a 4 means the student can not only add and subtract but has, in the new terminology, displayed high skill in "number sense and operations."
The switch from letter grades to numbers has something to do with national education standards, which are tied to student performance on standardized tests. That performance is measured in numbers. And now, so is their work in the classroom.
This means a lot more work for teachers, because they're being asked to factor as many 50 detailed skill areas into their ratings of student success in each class.
A lot of parents are unhappy with the new numerical report cards. One woman told the Washington Post that they "don't provide any recognition for a student who is consistently doing excellent work." Another parent told the New York Times that "what has happened is that the high-performing students are saying, 'I don't have to work that hard,' and they all stopped trying."
And parents seem to be saying - without using these exact words - "It's a lot cooler to have a bumper sticker that reads, 'I'm riding with an A student from McKinley School'" than it is to say they're carting around a "Number 4."