Report cards. Photo: CorbisNine-year-old James Carr's grades are neither terrible, nor amazing. Students at his Whitby, Ont., school are marked on a scale from A-plus to D-minus, and his report card is usually peppered with Bs and Cs. They're decent marks, and his mom, Kathleen Crilly, would like to be happy with them. But she doesn't quite understand what they're for.
"I don't know if he tried hard and still didn't do well, or didn't try at all," she says. She describes his quarterly report cards as a list of marks and vague comments. Crilly calls James a "frustrating kid" - he usually aces tests, but he never does homework and rarely pays attention in class. His teachers have shared varying opinions of him: Some think he's a genius, while others have implied he might have autism. Marks don't give any insight into James' learning process, says Crilly. "The report cards didn't tell me anything I didn't already know."
Report cards are supposed to be a method for teachers to communicate with parents about how their child is performing. But in recent years, parents have complained that the multi-page documents sent home with their children are confusing and unhelpful. Things have gotten so bad that some parents and educators think elementary-school students shouldn't get report cards at all.
"We need a new way of communicating progress in school," says Tom Hierck, an educational consultant and former head of the British Columbia principals' association. He cites a study that examined kids' improvement levels after three types of feedback: letter and number grades; comments without grades; and a combination of comments and grades. The students who received clear, directive comments, without marks, are the only ones whose learning improved over time. All Canadian public schools use grades, but Hierck has visited some US schools that don't. He believes individualized comments better address a student's strengths and weaknesses. It's often the parents who prefer letter and number grades.
Right now, Canadian report cards are full of teacher jargon. The Elk Island Public Schools,outside Edmonton, now include a four-page cheat sheet, which tells parents how to read its "outcomes-based report card," on which "Achievement, Effort and Social Attributes" are each rated on a four level scale using words like "Proficient" and "Insufficient." According to some teachers, a move toward euphemism - and away from honesty about a child's weaknesses - is the main reason comments have become so murky.
Kevin* has spent five years as a teacher in Toronto. He used to write each of his 20-plus students an individual report card. But for the past three years, his school has provided teachers with a pre-approved list of report card comments to attach to the letter grades for each subject. Students are also evaluated on "learning skills" (mostly social skills and things like handing in homework) rated Excellent, Good, Satisfactory or Needs Improvement, accompanied by a canned comment. Kevin is told to focus on each student's "strengths," no matter how minor.
"It might be that the kid shows up to class on time," he says. Students with challenges are told their "next steps," which are couched in indirect phrasing. Getting a D in math, for example, might warrant the comment, "Will be given additional guided opportunities to add and subtract larger numbers." Kevin explains: "That just means your kid can't do math." He spends much of his parent-teacher interview time translating comments. While higher-ups promise parents more clarity, "they're the ones telling us to fill it up with jargon," he says.
Report cards were a sore point in BC over the 2011/2012 school year, when union-led job action had teachers refusing to write them. It was stressful for mom Erin Brooks-Wilson, who lives in Halfmoon Bay, BC, and has four children from ages 11 to 17. "My kids definitely had an attitude of ‘who cares, we're not getting graded anyway,'" she says. She's the chair of her district parent-advisory council and believes report cards are a key motivational tool. "Kids get some sort of gratification out of report cards. I hate to see that lost.
"During the work-to-rule period, BC schools encouraged parents to arrange phone calls and interviews with teachers instead, but because teachers' strike schedules didn't extend past the last bell, it was impossible for many parents to do so. "I felt very out of the loop on how my children were doing," says Brooks-Wilson.
Last year, Ottawa grade-five teacher Brenda* spent hours discussing one troubled student with his mother. "I couldn't write ‘he sits there for two hours with his arms crossed and won't say or do anything' on the report card," Brenda says. Accurate report cards are for internal school-system use, too, she says, and right now they fail as a way for teachers to get a quick summation of their new classes each fall. "If it takes half a year for a new teacher to figure out the issues, that child isn't getting what he needs. My own report cards used to say, ‘Brenda chats too much with her friends during class and needs to focus,'" she recalls. "Now I'd have to say something like, ‘With reminding, Brenda is able to work effectively during class time.'" Clarity in comments has been a divisive issue between her union and the Ottawa public-school board - principals have the authority to soften or alter comments before they're sent out to parents, but the union tells teachers they can refuse to sign cards if they don't agree with the changes.
When it comes to making report cards better, there are plenty of suggestions. For James' mom, Kathleen Crilly, it would resemble the rubric her seven-year-old daughter, Charlie, received last year after every major test. Each subject's assignments and tests were stapled together, with a table on the front that showed marks and effort level for each step. "I could see where she scored well, and the comments were very clear," says Crilly. "That was so helpful." Brenda would like to see a yes-or-no checklist of specific skills, which would provide basic information, yet avoid the subjective and sometimes negative comments. Toronto teacher Kevin says, "I'd like to be able to write at least part of the report card from scratch. It's hard, and it takes longer, but it's focused on each kid." Hierck, the former principal, wishes Canadian parents and schools were brave enough to ditch grades altogether. He'd like to see comments in readable language that celebrate successes and identify areas that need improvement.
"There's a notion of security and comfort that comes with a known quantity, but if you dig into it, it's hard to say what the difference is between a low B and a high C," says Hierck. "We need to move away from a system created 150 years ago."
This article appeared in our November 2012 issue with the headline "Needs Improvement," pp. 70-72.
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