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.

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.


Percentages belong on report cards

April 24, 2013

Published in the Vancouver Province

Suppose you have two grade 8 students in the same science class. We’ll call them Ken and Damian. Ken received a mark of 85 per cent on his report card while Damian got 96 per cent. Who did better in science?

For most people, this question is easy to answer. While both students did well, Damian’s higher mark indicates that he outperformed Ken. Damian probably received slightly better marks on his tests, submitted higher quality assignments, and demonstrated a superior understanding of the subject matter. In other words, there is a real and measurable difference between a good student like Ken and an excellent student like Damian.

However, some school division officials apparently think Ken and Damian deserve the same mark. As a case in point, Battle River School Division, based in Camrose, Alberta, requires its teachers to grade student work at one of four levels – beginning, developing, achieving, or excelling. Since the “excelling” level includes a range of 84 to 100, both Ken and Damian would receive the same mark under this system.

Unsurprisingly, the new grading system is not going over well with parents or students in Battle River. A recent rally at the school division’s office attracted more than 150 students and parents while about 2,800 parents and 300 students have signed a petition opposing the new grading system. Despite the opposition, the school division has given no indication that it plans to change course.

The philosophy underpinning the new approach is known as outcomes-based assessment. Essentially, it states that students should be evaluated based on how well they master specific learning targets known as outcomes. For example, an outcome for a grade 5 math course might be “use two digit multiplication to solve real-life math problems.” The teacher would then give a mark based on how well students learned that particular outcome.

So far there is nothing particularly objectionable about this approach. After all, it makes sense to specify what skills students need to master in each subject. It also is reasonable for teachers to use a four-point scale to evaluate some types of student work based on these learning outcomes. Problems arise when school administrators toss aside common sense and impose rigid assessment policies that lead to unnecessary conflicts with parents and students. Sometimes policies that sound good in theory do not translate well into the real classroom setting.

The no-zero policy at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton that led to the firing if physics teacher Lynden Dorval is a case in point. Ross Sheppard’s then-principal followed outcomes-based assessment to the letter when he instructed teachers not to give zeros for missing work. This was based on the conviction that all grades must only reflect achievement of learning-outcomes. Of course, Ross Sheppard teachers found out very quickly that many students do not submit their work on time if there is no academic penalty for lateness. No-zero policies may sound good to ivory tower academics but they don’t work in real classrooms.

The removal of percentage grades from report cards is another example of this disconnect between assessment theory and classroom reality. While it may make sense to grade some assignments on a four-point scale, there is no need TO extend this to every assignment. Some assignments are more complex than others and have many possible proficiency levels. Percentage grades make it possible to differentiate between good work and excellent work in a way that simply cannot be done when teachers are limited to four achievement levels.

In addition, most students still write unit tests where even more levels of proficiency are possible. A student who answers all 50 math questions correctly on a test should receive a higher grade than another student who answered 44 questions correctly. Conversely, it is much worse to get only three questions correct than to answer 24 questions correctly. And yet, both these students would receive the same “beginning” grade under the Battle River system.

It is also important to recognize that percentage grades are a form of communication that virtually all parents understand. Even if strict adherence to the principles of outcomes-based assessment was technically correct, school divisions need to weigh this against the need to work together with parents and provide them with understandable information about student achievement. Administrators who wish to overhaul grading practices need to ask themselves whether the change they seek is so important that it necessitates alienating a large number of parents and students.

In this latest clash between theory and reality in public education, let’s hope reality wins for a change. Percentages belong in classrooms and on report cards.