Report cards: Teachers should be free to say what they really think

March 18, 2015

Published in the Chronicle Herald (Halifax)

Nova Scotia Education Minister Karen Casey has demonstrated achievement of some of the learning outcomes for this year. She recognizes that parents deserve to receive report cards that actually make sense. But she has not yet demonstrated the ability to significantly revise the onerous comment-writing guidelines and would benefit from using some common sense.

The above paragraph is an example of the mind-numbing drivel many teachers are still required to write on students’ report cards. Instead of simply stating the obvious, teachers must follow a laborious set of comment writing criteria at all grade levels.

For example, the Tri-County Regional School Board in rural Nova Scotia provides its teachers with a 15-page manual called Creating Strong Report Card Comments. Among other things, teachers are expected to identify at least one strength, challenge, and next step for each student in every subject area.

Think this is easy? The manual also reminds teachers not to refer to any behaviours such as study habits, homework completion, attendance, or attitude in their comments. The manual even provides a list of “useful” descriptors such as: “successfully interprets,” “has not yet demonstrated understanding,” and “needs more time to develop.”

So instead of telling parents that their kids would get better marks if they studied for tests, showed up for class and finished their homework, teachers are forced to write comments with useless verbiage. Not only that, every comment is expected to relate to a specific learning outcome.

Hence parents must decipher verbiage such as: “She could identify some cultural groups that have settled in, but struggled to explain their impact on, Canada. Student only occasionally used this learning to demonstrate an understanding of the interactions among people and places over time and the resulting effects on the environment. She needs to consider alternate points of view.”

This comment was taken verbatim from Tri-County’s report card manual.

Much of this verbiage stems from requiring teachers to identify an outcome-specific strength in every subject even when the student is doing poorly and obviously needs to put more effort into his work.

Similarly, teachers must provide specific challenges and next steps for high-achieving students who need to keep doing what they are doing. However, in these situations, old-fashioned comments such as “More effort required” or “Excellent progress” would be a better way of getting the message across.

Commendably, Ms. Casey acknowledged last year that report cards could not be understood by parents. She even ordered some sensible changes such as including percentage marks on grades 7 and 8 report cards, and telling teachers to cut back on the impersonal, bureaucratic language.

However, her department’s press release announcing these changes still mentions strengths, challenges, and next steps teachers are expected to include in every comment. For the most part, the same onerous and convoluted comment-writing guidelines must be followed by teachers.

Rigid assessment guidelines are behind other nonsensical ideas such as no-zero policies, which insisted that incomplete or late work should not affect a student’s academic mark. Schools with no-zero policies quickly discovered that without firm deadlines, students are free to hand in their assignments whenever they want. It didn’t take long for classroom teachers to conclude that this was yet another ivory tower idea that didn’t work in real classrooms.

The same can be said for onerous report card guidelines. Forcing teachers to include strengths, challenges, and next steps in every comment without making reference to behaviour has more to do with enforcing a particular assessment ideology than improving student achievement. In the end, no one benefits — except consultants who get paid to try to solve the problems they themselves have created.

Things would work a lot better if teachers could just write whatever comments they think are appropriate on report cards. After all, they have five or more years of university education and they should know how to write reasonable and appropriate comments on their own. In the area of assessment, teachers need more professional autonomy —not less.

In this case, the next step for the education minister is obvious. She needs to reject her department’s rigid assessment ideology and empower teachers to use their own judgment on report cards.