CBE’s new report cards are a lesson in failure

June 15, 2013

Published in the Calgary Herald

It is soon going to get a lot more difficult for Calgary parents to figure out how their kids are doing in school. Instead of standard letter or percentage grades, parents can look forward to finding out whether their kids are in the “exemplary,” “evident,” “emerging,” or “support required” categories.

As a part of a new pilot project in a number of its schools, the Calgary Board of Education is bringing in new report cards. Not only will there be no letter or percentage grades, teachers will no longer provide written comments. In addition, report cards will be sent home only two times each year instead of three or four times. Eventually, the board intends to implement the new report cards for all kindergarten to Grade 9 students.

Advocates of this new approach claim it will improve communication with parents. However, only someone immersed in edu-babble could seriously believe that replacing well-known and understood letter grades and percentage with vague descriptors makes it easier for parents to understand how their kids are doing. For most parents, the difference between traditional grades such as a B and a D is a lot more obvious than the difference between “evident” and “emerging.”

Unfortunately, parents had better work at deciphering the “evident” and “emerging” descriptors since they are likely to appear most frequently on report cards. This is because “exemplary” means a student is performing well above grade level, which usually includes only a small percentage of students in any class. After all, if most students in a grade consistently perform above grade level, then the skills being evaluated would likely be moved to a different grade level.

As for the “support required” descriptor, this is a new code word for failure. However, since we all know that failure is almost impossible at the elementary levels, it is reasonable to assume parents will rarely see “support required” on report cards. Consequently, it may lead to some interesting conversations at home when parents try to encourage their kids to try to be more “evident” in their two-digit multiplication skills.

To make matters even more confusing, the new report cards will not contain any personalized comments from teachers. While the school board says these comments are unnecessary because teachers will communicate more regularly with parents, the fact remains that written comments on the report card are a prime opportunity for teachers to provide important information to parents — particularly those with younger children. The removal of personalized comments from report cards may lighten the workload of teachers, but it won’t benefit students or parents.

Advocates of these kinds of reporting systems frequently claim they have research evidence on their side. This claim is patently false. There is no body of research showing that the removal of percentage or letter grades in public schools leads to improved student achievement. While it is true that some students and parents prefer nebulous or non-existent grades, it is equally true that many students and parents prefer a rigorous grading system that enables them to track their academic progress.

What research does show is that timely and understandable feedback from teachers to students and their parents is extremely important. In his seminal 2009 book, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement, education professor John Hattie classifies feedback as “among the most powerful influences on achievement.” While traditional letter and percentage grades are far from perfect, they are a long-standing and important form of feedback to students and their parents. The traditional grades should not be abandoned without very good reasons, and so far, the reasons are not evident.

In a letter that recently appeared on the Calgary Board of Education’s website, chief superintendent Naomi Johnson expressed her wish “for additional communication between teachers and parents . . . ” She added that, “The goal of this work is more frequent communication overall.” If increased communication between parents and teachers actually is the goal, it is odd that report cards will go home only twice per year. Fewer report cards usually means less information is being provided to both students and parents.

If Johnson wishes to improve communication with parents, she can begin by listening to the concerns already being expressed about the new reporting system. There is no need to completely remove traditional grades or personalized comments from report cards.

Calgary Board of Education’s report cards deserve a grade of F, or “support required” in their new grading scheme.