Report Cards: A Throwback to a Bygone Era.

November is a very special time of year. For many, it marks a time of introspection and respectful reflection. It can be a quiet time, as we recover from the mayhem that was Hallowe’en and begin to think about the mayhem that is the upcoming holiday season. The snow has not yet started, but there is a hint of it in the air. There is a sense, indeed, of inevitability.

And, for teachers, that inevitability is report cards.

Over the past several years of writing I have noticed that November always brings us round to this topic. A few years ago, report cards were at the forefront of educational commentary. The issue then, at least according to a CBC report, was that parents often could make little sense of what was written on these reports. A similar complaint was put forth in The Chronicle Herald  and before long, in typical Nova Scotia fashion, then Minister of Education Ramona Jennex announced  that changes were to be made. (Teachers’ complaints about how hard the things were to write in the first place, let alone read, had up to that point been essentially ignored, but I digress.)

The government soon changed hands, and the new Minister, in new typical Nova Scotia fashion, decided that a survey was warranted on the issue. This effort resulted in the Minister declaring that teachers could now include personalized comments on report cards, and she followed that up with a “how to” guide for teachers. (Indicating, of course, that somehow the original issue of report card comments had been something teachers had created instead of being subject to, but again, I digress.)

Well, at the time, I made the completely outlandish suggestion that it might be wise to simply just let teachers write report cards. I even went so far as to suggest that if a series of dictates from on high about how report cards comments should be written had not been imposed upon us in the first place, the whole issue could have been avoided. But, alas, there seems to be no end of Government officials who believe that the last people who should be consulted on issues of education are the educators themselves, so a new list of criteria was created for a kinder, gentler and supposedly more personalized report

Well, this past Remembrance day, after attending a local memorial service, I sat down and began to wade through my own 138 odd report card comments for a rapidly approaching deadline. And as I slogged away at the task, another outlandish suggestion crossed my mind. One that I have heard proposed by teachers from all levels, and one that, when faced with the task of writing 138 report cards filled with what I hoped would be meaningful comments, certainly had a particular allure for me.

Let’s just get rid of the damn things.

Seriously, I can think of no single piece of paper the education system produces that causes more angst and anguish. When first envisioned, report cards were a fairly simple affair. A teacher sat down and wrote out, (by hand, in the days of yore) comments about how a student was doing in their class. Teachers could talk about whatever they felt was impacting, positively or negatively, a child’s education. And report cards had value. They were important. They were brought home to parents with hope-of-a-new-bicycle joy or with boy-am-I-going-to-get-it trepidation. And heaven help you if the message they contained spoke of lack of effort, incomplete homework or too much talking in class.

All that changed somewhere around the turn of the millennium, depending upon who you ask,  when assessment gurus decided that report cards that spoke of behaviour and effort were ineffective. These revelations were accompanied by such edicts as “teacher may only report on outcomes” and “homework should not be mentioned”. After all, it was argued, completing homework, showing up on time, and paying attention in class had nothing to do with a student’s ability to, for example, solve long division. Report cards should only report on learning. Around the same time, the Pearsonification of education began to really take hold, and Nova Scotia adopted an on-line reporting system for students.

And that’s pretty much where my beef begins.

You see, regardless of where one stands on current assessment  practice, there is a certain amount of ludicrousness to preparing the modern report card.  As much as I may or may not agree with the gurus, we live in a brand new age of communication. Once Pearson entered my classroom with its on-line markbook, report cards became ridiculously redundant. Every single mark I give to a student is now online. Every assignment I give, every test, every piece of assessment I correct is entered into the computer system.

With a password and a click of a mouse, parents not only see what mark their student has at the end of my course, but are able to follow along in real-time. As soon as I enter a mark, it goes live. Want to know how your child is doing? Check online. How did they do on their last test? Check on-line. Want to know what work they are missing?

You get my point. A quick boo at a computer screen, an e-mail, or even perhaps an old style phone call can reveal a veritable gold mine for parents.

Now, as odd as it may sound that we still prepare a report to send home information that is already so readily available, the situation is made even more strange when one considers the upcoming November report. As a high school teacher in HRSB, I will need to have my report card comments completed by November 16th, written under what is still a fairly prescriptive formula. (As a specialist teacher, I am limited to 400 characters. If I taught Math or English I would get up to 800. The underlying indication that those subjects are twice as important as anything else we do in school is a blog for another day). The report cards will go home a few days later, sometime around the 18th or 19th. However, as a specialist teacher, I have grade 9 students in my charge who are only in my class for half a semester. The last day I had them was on November 6th. Thus, I am writing comments for parents whose children have finished my course approximately two weeks before they receive the report.

Hardly the time to be finding out your child is not doing well in my class.

Another issue closely related to this one is that often, the mark on the report cards can be inaccurate. In high school, for example, mid-term reports are based on the work submitted and assessed by teachers up to a certain date, usually about half way through the course. Teachers need time to write the reports (did I mention 138 report cards), but as they are trying to tabulate the marks, classes are still going on, tests are still being written, assignments still passed in. In some cases, over a week can pass before report cards actually make it into the hands of parents. Thus, they are essentially reading a report on where their student was not where they are now. A student who has a failing grade on a report card could have scrambled to get some late work in, or could have aced a test. Conversely, a student could have tanked on an assessment event, and be failing a course their report card shows them as passing.

Kind of makes the whole endeavour seem a tad ridiculous, doesn’t it?

As teachers attempt to pull a reluctant system kicking and screaming into the 21st century, policy makers and the public alike have to recognize that there are some relics of a bygone age that are not worth the work put into them for what is preeminently nostalgia’s sake. As we move more and more towards electronic delivery of education, it becomes ever more easy for parents to follow their student’s progress. A simple log in allows parents to see their child’s mark on a daily basis. Indeed, if the child’s teacher is using the new Google Apps for Education (GAFE) system, parents can even read the feedback being provided on each and every assignment.

And the notes that I write to my students are often much more pointed, and I hope, informative, than I could ever put in a report card.

I, of all people, recognize that there are socioeconomic issues here; not everyone can afford the internet or a computer. But as governments continue look for ways to reduce inefficiencies, it seems to me they are ignoring one opportunity to do so that is staring them right in the face.

It may be time for report cards to become a thing of the past.

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Filed under assessment, Education Policy, Educational commentary, Public education, Report cards

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