Over the past few weeks, I have been looking at the differences between assessments that promote learning of content and conceptual understanding and those that are based on the behaviour or social development of students. This led to some conversations around the use of late marks, zeroes for not handing in work and ‘the first five minutes of class’ quizzes. See here, for some of that discussion. Now, I am looking at how we take that information and share it with parents and students. Again, looking at what is the purpose of report cards.
Report cards for the first semester are starting to be written at my school. I don’t envy the teachers at this time of year as they are competing with many opposing forces: administrator deadlines for reports, student work and assignments coming in, valuing the learning, assessment strategies and supporting students. If a teacher has embraced the concepts of Assessments for Learning, this time of year must be exponentially stressful, as all the formative assessment work is now over and summative has arrived (even if just for one day). But I question the purpose of report cards.
It is mandated from the Ministry of Education that there must be a formal mechanism throughout the year where parent are informed of their child’s progress. This mandate comes from a time when even phone calls were difficult for connections between school and home. Not everyone had an answering machine, some had party lines, and some may not have had a phone at all. We are now in the twenty-first century (I know this because of all those great articles coming out about teaching in the 21st Century – fourteen years a little late….). Communication has changed from phone calls, to emails, to sites where a student or parent can look up the exact percentage in the course. (love those programmes that continue to instill the concept of averaging marks, everything is assessed and reported). The averaging of marks reminds me of the heat in my school: some places too hot, some too cold, but on average, we are just right…..
I have seen many teachers move beyond this, by setting up classroom blogs or twitter accounts. Parents can get a glimpse into the classroom and see what is going on. Some teachers have set up e-portfolios that a parent can access and see the progress their child has made as well as where growth is needed. The amount of real data and information that a parent gets through these connections can replace about 3 hours of conversation on the phone.
So let’s look at the report card. Traditionally, it gives a percentage and/or a letter grade, perhaps a work habits mark (g=good, s=satisfactory, n=needs improvement) and a comment or two. These comments are usually canned: $’s is working well and continues to show improvement; $ should be working on his/her mathematics homework for at least three hours a night. There are programmes when a teacher can add a comment, but they are also restricted to length. The amount of information that a parent thinks they are getting is huge (a possible ranking of their child in the class, an idea around whether they go to class and participate, and suggestions for improvement), but the actual information is very misleading. If you read four hundred grade 10 report cards, the common comments or even some of the personalised comments still reduce the report card to a mandatory reporting out, not a useful engagement of parent, student, teacher triad.
My mother often recounts the time I received my report card from school where it stated that I was a very valuable member of the rugby team. My father was so proud, as I had never shown any interest in the sport, nor talked about it. Turns out, they sent the wrong report card home. Now, it was fixed and my father had to be proud of my swimming, not my rugby ability, but it makes me think that we could eliminate all the stress of report cards, by removing them completely. Let’s invite parents into the conversation throughout the year, not just two to three time a semester or course.
Digital portfolios, student-led conferences and authentic conversations about support, success and improvements would go a long way in creating life long learners.