Sunday, November 21, 2010

Guest Post: New Report Cards

(re-posted from Parenting is Political.)

New Report Cards—Progress?

Readers of this blog may recall that several months ago, I reviewed the Toronto District School Board's new, purportedly jargon-free, parent-friendly report card, piloted in 19 schools last June. (See post here.) This November we are seeing the results of yet another reform of the report card system, this one a province-wide initiative to replace the fall graded report card with an ungraded "Elementary Progress Report Card." The progress report was spearheaded by teachers who complained that November is too soon to come up with letter grades for students. According to ministry of education literature, the advantage of the progress report is that it provides, in a greatly expanded section, detailed information about a student's work habits—for instance, Responsibility, Organization, Collaboration—skills which the ministry considers to be more reliable indicators of student success (or lack thereof) than grades in the early part of the year. The brochure accompanying the new report card explains that with respect to specific subjects, the progress report offers personalized comments about a student's "progress towards" (as opposed to "achievement of") grade-level curriculum standards. Thus, in the subject section of the new report, grades are replaced by three categories: "progressing with difficulty," "progressing well," and "progressing very well."

So, do these progress reports, sent home in our case on November 16, actually represent "progress" for parents and students? My answer, and that of my kids, is an ambivalent yes and no.

Initially, my daughters were opposed to the ungraded report cards; in their view grades, and grades alone, tell you how well you're doing at school. I've always told them that marks don't matter all that much, that learning is what is important. In fact, although they've always been excellent students, I did not even let them see their report cards until Grade 3 (when they put their foot down and demanded to read them). But while I was attempting to de-emphasize grades, the school and teachers were succeeding in teaching them a different lesson: grades do matter, they matter more than almost anything else. For the past three years, virtually everything my daughters have produced for school, both in the classroom and at home—including notes in their workbooks, artwork, math desk work and homework, grammar exercises, and dramatic performances—has been graded. In my opinion, this mania for grading has several deleterious effects, not the least of which is the way it discourages children from experimenting or trying new things. But that is a subject for another post. For the moment, suffice it to say that given teachers' penchant for grading everything they do, my daughters could be forgiven for concluding that grades are indeed the point of education.

So the girls' initial disappointment with the lack of grades was understandable. Interestingly, however, as they read through the new report cards, they seemed to enjoy not seeing letter grades. It was a change, a relief perhaps, and it led them to the comments, which previously they had dismissed as irrelevant.

But, being savvy readers-between-the-lines, they immediately noted that the new categories—"progressing with difficulty," "progressing well," and "progressing very well"—could be easily correlated to grades, and that the comments, while marginally more personalized, still had a cookie-cutter feel to them, and were consequently not particularly revealing of their specific strengths and weaknesses.

My own take on the new report cards is nearly as ambivalent as that of my daughters. I do find the "progress" reports, with their detailed comments in both the work habits and subject sections, slightly more helpful than graded reports in conveying a sense of how my daughters are doing. I've heard parents complain that grades give them a truer picture of how their child is faring academically, and prevent any potential surprises come February, when the first graded report card is sent home. I don't think this is a valid concern: in our school, and I suspect in a majority of schools in the TDSB, practically every quiz, assignment or test, has to be signed by the parent and returned to the teacher, so how could there be any surprises?

My problem with the new report cards is, on the contrary, that they do not, in the end, constitute an alternative to graded reports. I think the ministry of education is trying to have it both ways. On the one hand it seems to be trying to de-emphasize grades, and direct parents' attention to what it deems most important at this point in the school year: work habits. But on the other hand, the new "progress" categories in effect re-introduce grades through the back door. It is also somewhat disingenuous to proclaim that grades don't matter in the first term, but are useful and necessary in the second or third terms. I'm sure I'm in a minority here, but I'd be happy if there were no grades in elementary school, full stop. Then perhaps it would not be an uphill battle to convince my daughters that learning—challenging oneself, thinking critically, experimenting—is the point of education, not grades. But if the ministry and school boards are going to commit to grades, I see little point in committing to them two thirds of the time, as they have chosen to do.


  1. ***
    I think the ministry of education is trying to have it both ways.

    You betcha!

    I don't think it matters whether you use letter grades, numbers, or categories that obviously correlate to letter grades. There's the same basic problem with all of them, which is that they encourage kids to be more concerned with somebody else's rating of what they've learned than with their own experience of learning.

    My older dd had an opportunity to increase her grade on a science project, and later a test, if she corrected and amended certain answers. You know what? She didn't bother. I'm with her on this one. Who cares if she gets a B+ or an A- in a crummy 7th grade science class? I certainly don't.

  2. FedUpMom, I admire your daughter's attitude. How, I wonder, did she get to the point of knowing it's all a crock? My kids are starting to see through the grading game, but they still care way too much about their grades. This year is their last in elementary school (it goes up to grade 6 in our area), and their classmates are always talking about "making the honour roll." Even though my daughters normally receive excellent grades, I told them I don't care if they make the honour roll and, in fact, I'd prefer it if they didn't. I said this because they feel so much pressure to perform this year, both academically and extra-curricularly (since the grade sixes, at the ripe old age of 11, are expected to participate in *everything* in their final year). I thought saying I didn't want them to make the honour roll would take some of the pressure off. Instead they were shocked and appalled at my bad attitude :).

  3. Oh and, speaking of science, my daughters' science teacher this year (not their core teacher) said to the class about their last project: "If you want a level 4 (A), you have to do such and such, if you want a level 3 or less, don't bother." As if everything they do or don't do should be calculated and determined according to the grade they're trying to achieve. Learning for its own sake doesn't even enter into the picture. It's depressing.

  4. PsychMom says:

    When I was a university student I appreciated when Profs outlined how much work one had to do to get whatever grade you deemed acceptable for yourself. But now I understand how lame that whole idea is.

    Doing it in elementary school is outrageous because you are setting up kids really early to do work based on teachers' whims. Because really, what one teacher thinks in A level work may not be the same idea for the next teacher. It's a study in figuring out your teacher rather than advancing your own learning.

    One of the biggest complaints right now in North American is that productivity is down....well, I think we have our answer why that is. We're teaching our children how to be only minimally productive.

  5. Young Curmudgeon adds:

    “One of the biggest complaints right now in North American is that productivity is down”
    Um … don’t the official measures of productivity always drop during a recession? What I remember from my macro-economics course was that the official measure of productivity is roughly economic activity (GDP) divided by employment. During slow times, some companies will keep more workers than they “need” on hand in anticipation of the economy turning around. Leading to a reduction of employment does not match reduction in GDP, resulting in lower official productivity.

    During times of economic expansion, especially rapid expansion, companies can’t keep up on hiring, so that the economy grows faster than employment leading to higher official productivity. Workers paid overtime instead of salary will mitigate this effect both directions.

    In other words, economic activity influences official productivity, in the short term, not the other way around, and official productivity measures should be ignored. Kind of like elementary school grades.

  6. ***
    How, I wonder, did she get to the point of knowing it's all a crock?

    I think when she was having a terrible time in accelerated math, and I pulled her out of the class, she learned that it's possible to change your situation: you don't have to just passively accept whatever gets thrown at you. Then when she went to a new school, where everything was different, she learned that the school you happen to be in isn't the whole world. She's been pretty skeptical ever since.

    There's a great passage in a Ved Mehta autobiography about how he was expecting a First at Oxford, but got a Second. He thought it was the end of the world. Then he went home to India, where most of the people he knew had barely heard of Oxford ... I'll have to see if I can dig it up.

  7. I kind of agree with the new report cards for parents. Measuring aptitude in major subjects is not solely the measurement of a kid's intelligence and progress. We must be able to look at development and education as a holistic perspective. In that way, I think the system they employ will be very effective.
    Jan Haskins