Just like Christmas, Report Cards are Coming!

Yes, as the leaves in our lovely little corner of the world begin to gather in our back yards, and a frosty nip enters the night air, mid-term report cards, like Christmas, are just around the corner.

Now, for those of you who have not been following along, report cards here in Nova Scotia caused quite a bit of a bruhaha last June. Local media got wind of the fact that some parents were having difficulty interpreting the lingo heavy comments sent home at year’s end. Folks from all sides of the issue weighed in, with parents, politicians and talks show hosts alike raising the alarm.

As a result of all the hubbub, the then governing NDP’s education minister Ramona Jennex vowed to set things right and do something about the report card comments. However, with the recent thumping of the NDP by the Liberals in the Provincial election, one can expect that the “What to do about report cards” problem will remain, in the short-term at least, unresolved.

And, in a very few weeks, the report cards are a-comin’ home. Again. And again, they are bound to stir up some trouble.

Teachers have been reporting on student achievement for as long as teachers have been asking students to achieve. However, the modern-day report card is  a culmination of several decades of “new and improved” education models. Here in Nova Scotia, their history can be traced back to the introduction of “Outcomes Based Education” in the 1990s. Outcome based education, or OBE, was the brainchild of William Spady, an innovative educator who came up with the idea that kids should demonstrate what they learned in school in authentic situations. From these practical and rather exciting beginnings, OBE morphed into an idea that would become a list of things that children were supposed to know and be able to do by the end of each grade, and it was this model that was adopted here in Nova Scotia. Not without some protestation, it should be noted, from teachers, who, at the time, raised concerns with the government of the day. Concerns which were, for the most part, ignored.

Fast forward ten years to the 2000s, and there came to our shores an onslaught of educational accountability. Fueled by the No Child Left Behind debacle of the Bush years, education began to become less about the students and more about the standards.  Students were tested and tested and tested again. Schools were inundated with standardized assessments and asked to defend the results. Plans were developed, binders filled, and data collection became the bane of teachers’ existence. School improvement was the cry, and improvement could only be measured through data. Teachers were again upset. Data collection took valuable time away from students and created unnecessary paperwork. And again, they were ignored.

Into this framework stepped a bevy of assessment gurus. After all, what good was data if we did not know how it was being measured? And, if it was to be measured,  it needed to be pure. Outcomes stopped being a list what teachers should be assessing and became a doctrine of what teachers were allowed to assess. The focus became on distancing the child from the data. Teachers could not mark neatness, could not reduce marks for late work, could not give class marks, nor participation marks, nor behaviour marks. Because these were not in the outcomes. It was from this line of thinking that policies such as “no zero’s” emerged. And again, teachers expressed concerns, to mostly deaf ears.

Then, finally, came the ultimate in transparency, the adoption of the online grade book. Every mark entered for every student by every teacher became visible by almost everyone.  Teachers who had once been trusted to report on students progress were now given a list of do’s and don’ts for preparing report cards. Only speak of the outcomes. Do not comment on behaviour. And for heaven’s sake, don’t  mention homework. So, under ever-increasing scrutiny, teachers set about to create report cards that dotted every “i” and ensured each “t” was crossed. One of the results of all this beyond the massive amount of extra work it has created for teachers (imagine dozens of on-line eyes checking your work over your shoulder every day) has been the emergence of unpopular, unreadable and uninformative report cards.

And in all the noise of last June, the one voice that was for the most part absent from the conversation on report cards was, you guessed it, that of teachers.

Now, to date there has been no news on changing the report cards, at least none that has come across my desk, so, in all likelihood, parents can expect more of the same this fall. But, here in Nova Scotia there is a new sheriff in town.  By the time this piece gets posted, Stephen McNeil will be our new Premier, and we will have a new education minister. It is my sincere hope that under this new management, government will, for once, stop listening to the radio talk show hosts, politically motivated editorial writers, and would be education experts who have not set foot inside a public education classroom in twenty years.

It is my hope that this government, when considering education, will finally listen to teachers.

How about we start by getting back to trusting teachers with writing report cards? Report cards that are meaningful, yes, and that follow sound assessment practice (there is a great deal of good in the current system), but allow for comments like ” You know, Johnny would probably be more successful if he did some homework, came to school regularly, and stopped texting in class.”

That would be a Christmas present well worth opening.

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Filed under assessment, Education Policy, Educational Change, Public education, Quality education, Report cards, Standards, Teacher autonomy, Uncategorized

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