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Friday, July 27, 2001



Grading is gentle in elementary schools

Japanese schoolchildren came home with first-semester report cards when school let out last week for summer vacation. But since student evaluations are remarkably gentle in Japanese primary schools, worries about bad marks are unlikely to mar the start to any child's holiday.

Before we moved to Japan, my children attended a public elementary school in the United States. There, students in kindergarten through second grade are evaluated using a three-tiered marking code: P -- Making Expected Progress; S -- Satisfactory; and N -- Not Making Expected Progress.

Beginning in third grade, however, achievement is ranked using letter grades: A -- Excellent; B -- Above Average; C -- Average; D -- Below Average; E -- Failing.

The switch to letter grades causes a lot of anxiety for third-graders and their parents. Many parents feel letter grades put too much pressure on young children.

So I was relieved to open my son's first report card in Japan and see no letter or numerical grades. At the school my children attend here in Tokyo, students in first through sixth grade are rated in both academic subjects and behavior according to a three-tiered marking code: taihen yoi (very good), yoi (good) or mo sukoshi, a soft and vague phrase that is probably best translated as "should try a little harder."

It wasn't always this way. Japanese elementary schoolchildren used to be graded on a class curve using a five-tier system in which five was the best grade. Because only a fixed percentage of the students could receive top marks, parents could easily figure out how their child compared to the rest of the class. But about 20 years ago, schools started changing to a less competitive grading system.

This change is reflected in the language. Report cards used to be called tsushinbo, a grave and serious word. That term gave way to the friendlier-sounding tsuchihyo, which is now used at many schools, including ours.

Others go further to take the pressure out of student evaluations. A private girls' school in Tokyo uses the ever-so-gentle phrase katei e no o-shirase. To get the mild tone right, you might translate this as "a message to the home." Other schools use reporting forms with vague titles like kagayaki (radiance) or ayumi (steps).

This is not to suggest that Japanese students don't receive objective feedback on academic performance. My children's daily schoolwork is not only checked but also graded. Even my first-grader comes homes with papers marked on a 100-point scale, which strikes me as a bit severe for youngsters just beginning in school.

But these grades for classroom work aren't noted on the report cards we receive at the end of each term. I recently compared the grading forms used for second-graders at the American school they attended and the Japanese school my children attend now. I discovered some interesting differences.

For example, Japanese students are evaluated on how well they make standard greetings such as ohayo gozaimasu (good morning) and sayonara. Called aisatsu, such greetings are a very big deal in Japanese schools, the subject of frequent lessons, speeches and printed reminders all over the school. Our school recently had a "Better Greeting" campaign, in which students were exhorted to make their greetings consistently and in a clear voice. When my older son had been in Japan only a few months, and barely spoke Japanese, his teacher nevertheless complained to me several times about his substandard greetings.

Second-graders in Japan are rated on whether they are "kind to animals and respect plants," a category I've never seen on a U.S. report card.

Another category I found only on the Japanese report card is how well students remember to bring necessary items to school. Compared to American students, Japanese kids have far more supplies that move between school and home, including gym clothes, uwabaki (shoes worn only inside school), watercolor sets and calligraphy sets. Learning to bring the right supplies on the right day is a big part of a Japanese schoolchild's responsibility.

On the other hand, while second-graders at both the American and Japanese school are evaluated on how they work in groups, only the American second-graders were evaluated on their ability to "work independently."

Then I noticed something else that underscores a critical difference in the education systems of the two countries. The American report card had a space for the teacher's recommendation on "grade placement for next year." Here the teacher indicates whether the child should advance to the next grade or be held back to repeat the grade due to academic or developmental problems.

The Japanese report card had no such notation because children are not held back in Japan. Ever. No matter how a child performs in school, he or she will advance to the next grade along with the rest of the class.

Nor do elementary school grades matter much for future educational opportunities. Although private middle schools ask for copies of recent report cards, admission is based almost completely on the applicant's performance on the school's entrance exam.

In a parents' meeting before report cards were sent home, my son's fourth-grade teacher asked us to talk about the report cards with our children. "Report cards are a tool to help you discuss with your child areas of strength as well as areas that could be improved," she stressed.

Parents apply their hanko (personal seal) to the report cards to show they've received and reviewed their child's grades and return them to the teacher when school resumes in September.

Will report cards change when the new national curriculum goes into effect next April? Each school will make that decision, since they have complete freedom over how to handle report cards. At our school, teachers are already discussing possible changes.

But the fundamentals will remain unchanged: Students will continue to be evaluated on the three-tiered scale, and reporting will continue to be a gentle affair at Japanese elementary schools.

Alice Gordenker is a Tokyo-based writer and the mother of two American children attending Japanese public elementary school.

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