education, Teacher, Uncategorized

Report cards – Who are we writing them for?

In response to a request for feedback put forth by Nova Scotia’s Minister of Education, I wrote the following letter which I forwarded today.

writing117Dear Minister Jennex,

In a recent letter to The Chronicle Herald, you invited families, students and educators to offer feedback on the report card system.

In my experience, teachers are often extremely reluctant to speak publicly on matters of education for fear of being seen as insubordinate or disrespectful. They often worry that speaking out will affect their current teaching position or their future job prospects. This fear silences teachers and keeps valuable information from being shared.

As an active teacher currently working in the Nova Scotia school system, I am taking you at your word that my feedback will be accepted in the manner in which it was requested. I expect that you will consider my comments to be neither disrespectful nor insubordinate. My only intent is to pass along my experience with the current report card system with the hopes that this ‘insider information’ will help to improve the current system.

My concern is that there appears to be a disconnect between what is being said and what is being done.

In your letter, you stated:

Comments on report cards should provide clear, straightforward information to parents about how their child is achieving and progressing in relation to program expectations and learning outcomes.

The HRSB policy on assessment states that report cards must be written: “using language that is based on learning outcomes and is easily understood by parents/guardians.” 

What we have here is an oxymoron.

To ensure report cards are easily understood by all parents/guardians, we need to use clear and straight-forward language. But, when we must deal exclusively with learning outcomes, we are forced to use eduspeak.

It is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to do both at the same time and have anyone, other than other trained educators, understand what you ‘really’ mean.

In your letter you also stated:

It is important for families to know that teachers are expected to produce individual report cards for students. The idea that they must use only “canned” comments is not true. Teachers are encouraged to include personalized comments.

While I don’t presume to speak for all teachers, the ones I know, myself included, have not been encouraged to include personalized comments. In fact, most personalized comments have been discouraged and crossed out by administrators only to be replaced by general outcomes-based language.   

As a former teacher, I know you are aware that teachers spend hundreds of hours writing report cards every year. And while it is true that we are not given “canned comments”, it is true that we have been specifically told by our administrators what we may and may not include in these comments.  Over the years, this list of what is permissible to say has been whittled down to such a narrow point that often all that is left is what you might call a ‘canned’ comment.

All Nova Scotia schools (as far as I am aware) require teachers to submit their report cards to be proofread and edited by an administrator before they are sent home. This helps to pick up on most of the inevitable typos that occur when you type 100+ pages of reports, but it also ensures that all comments are outcomes-based and do not include any information that strays from this focus.

HRSB policy states that teachers are required to develop accurate report cards by always relating grading and reporting to the learning outcomes and excluding characteristics that are not linked to learning outcomes (such as effort, behaviour and attendance). 

As well, individual student achievement will be measured against defined curriculum outcomes rather than compared to other students or measures of individual academic growth (and is) not be based on measures such as students’ social development and work habits, bonus points, student absence, missed/late assignments, group scores, neatness.

How is a teacher supposed to personalize a comment for a student when all personal information has to be excluded?  Once again, we have ourselves a paradox.

There are many different ways for teachers to communicate with parents outside of report cards. As we used to say at my school, “No parent should ever be surprised by what they read on a report card.” Yes, we send home completed tests and projects and samples of work, we write newsletters, we make appointments to meet with parents and we call them when specific issues arise. We also have board scheduled parent-teacher interview times. Unfortunately, in the HRSB at least, parent-teacher interviews are no longer scheduled to follow the issuance of report cards. Any parent who is confused by their child’s report card must make a separate appointment to meet with or speak to their child’s teacher. For a variety of reasons, not all parents are able or willing to do this. Many of them rely on their child’s report card to be self-explanatory, as they should be.

In the end, it’s simple.

Parents want to know how their child is doing in school. They want to know what their child is good at and what they struggle with both academically and socially. They want to ensure that their child is a happy, independent learner. They want what’s best for their child. And students, even the little ones, want to know when they’ve done well and how they can do better.

We need to improve our current report card system so that parents and students understand what we are saying. Otherwise, what is the point of having report cards at all?


34 thoughts on “Report cards – Who are we writing them for?”

  1. Well said Heather! I would be amongst the group asking “why bother?” The reports are so de-personalized and I often say while reading them aloud “insert name here”. My teacher friends tell me these take hours and hours – what a waste for everyone! The teacher writing them, the principal reviewing them, the paper they are written on, and me reading them, not to mention the cost of the program which I understand contributes to the “hours and hours” I hear it takes to prepare these.

  2. In the effort to make report cards objective, we’ve lost the personalization in them. Only if they become a bit more subjective again will they have that personal touch. Therein lies the report card paradox.

  3. Terrific, well written, explanatory, and so very TRUE!!! I was an teacher in NS for 26 years, and can’t count the hours of frustration encountered trying to get report cards”just right” according to speaking to the outcomes, and therefore removing all personal comments and kudos. I sincerely hope your letter submitted to Ms. Jennex and Department of Ed., makes a positive impact and helps to make some changes! Great job!

  4. Excellent article…every point made and opinion expressed is exactly what I’ve been complaining about (to our schools) for years now but nothing is ever done about it. I, too, feel the current report cards are a complete waste of time and effort (both of which are considerable, from what I’ve heard from teachers). I want and need something more personal that tells me what my child is doing right and, heaven forbid, also tells me what they are doing wrong. A five (yes, FIVE) to ten minute interview twice a year with a teacher does not give me enough opportunity to grasp how my child is really doing. And, working full time myself, I don’t have much time to meet outside of parent/teacher night, at a time that would work for the teacher as well. I certainly hope someone who can initiate a change reads what you have taken the time to write and actually does something about it. I would guess close to 100% of parents have the same opinion but, like myself, feel it is a royal waste of time trying to change things, as nothing seems to ever change.

    1. Thank you for your reply. After the initial article in the Chronicle-Herald where a parent expressed dismay over his child’s report card, the Minister went on the radio and stated that this was the first time she had ever received a complaint about Nova Scotia report cards. My first thought was: seriously? Who are you talking to? Or, more importantly, who are you not talking to? And who in the world is advising you that things are going well? That’s why I decided to send off the letter.
      I’m very glad to get your feedback. If the Minister responds to my letter, I will be sure to pass along your thoughts. The more we can emphasize that this is a wide-spread belief and problem, the more likely we are to get much needed changes.

  5. Thank-you so much for taking the time to write this letter. I understood everything you wrote, unlike the report cards that were sent home with my children when they were in elementary and high school. We are a military family that has lived all over Canada, and sadly, I can tell you that this is happening all across the country…it needs to change. I hope Minister Jennex is listening, not only to teachers, but to the parents who just want to know how their child is doing in school, academically and socially.

  6. Well written. I respect your willingness to voice an opinion. I hope that someone is listening.

    1. Thank you. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just digging my professional grave one blog at a time, lol! Seriously though, I heard a call-in radio show one afternoon and the commentator was telling callers that the reason report cards were so impersonal was because teachers didn’t want to to take the time to write personal comments. Of course this prompted the callers to call up and rant and rage about lazy teachers. It just infuriated me and I felt I had to say something.

  7. The problem with report cards is merely a symptom of the much larger problems overall in the education system. Education needs to return to basics, good old fashioned reading, writing, and arithmetic. Until a student learns the basics with an acceptable degree of success, nothing else can be built on their foundation. It is wrong to pass a child to the next grade level otherwise. Children of past generations who were failed at a grade level somehow managed to carry on in life. Failures are part of life, the best teachers, and it is wrong even to use the more politically correct term “held back”. Children are smarter than that, and changing the wording does not fool them. By trying to protect their feelings, the education system is giving them a false sense of what the real world will be like after graduation. Inevitably, life will school them, and they will not be grateful that the lesson was put off for so long.

    1. Thank you for your feedback but I have to say that I disagree with pretty much everything you’ve said here.
      Times have changed. Children aren’t being raised in the 1960’s anymore and our education system has to keep up with the times. Do I think reading, writing and math are important? Of course. But we have to make them relevant to the 21st century. That means things have to be different from when you or I went to school.
      In terms of holding a child back until they master reading or math at grade level, what do you do when a child just cannot achieve the goals? Do you keep them in grade 4 until they are 18 if they still can’t read at a grade 4 level? What if they are smart in other areas but struggle in one? Some people are not cognitively able to complete certain tasks, while others have learning disabilities. Our schools are now open to all children, including those with special needs or with different learning profiles. Research has proven time and time again that “failing a grade” is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a child. And it doesn’t work!!! It doesn’t encourage them to do better. It only tells them that they are not smart enough or good enough to go on with their peers.
      Yes, inevitably life will school us all. But I don’t think it’s necessary to make life miserable for children just so they know what might (or might not) lie around the corner.

      1. It is very true that we do not all have the same capabilities. Nature intended it that way, because every job is valuable, and every job requires someone to do it well. Those children of the 1960s you refer to had to option of vocational or trade schools if they did not intend to pursue a university degree. There is absolutely no shame in that. It’s no secret that there is a shortage of tradespeople these days.

        What I personally have seen in graduates of grade twelve in the 21st century is a woeful lack of writing and arithmetic skills. By keeping everyone on track to graduate, we have simply watered down the entire program, shortchanging those individuals who are more academically inclined. I have a great deal of sympathy for those young people who do go on to attend university and “hit the wall” in terms of their skill and knowledge deficiency.

      2. I think the academically inclined do fine in our system – if they are taught to be independent learners. Both of my children are very bright and do very well in school. I’ve never felt the need to speak to their schools about “raising the bar” for them. They do the work that’s required and then make their own challenges. One writes his own music and the other has written two novels. I don’t expect schools to be all things to my children.
        Happily, in my area, vocational schools and community colleges are seeing a resurgence. Not everyone, thank heavens, is suited for university. We need people of all gifts and talents in the world.

  8. Thank you for taking the time to respond to the request for feedback, and writing on behalf of teachers and parents. Our staff has heard the same comments from frustrated parents. Most admit that they don’t even read the reports and just look for the letter grades. The letter grades are also misleading to parents in that they think of the A grade they received when they were in school. Teachers spend many frustrated hours trying to word these reports to satisfy the writing requirements, only to have them returned with pages of adjustments to be made. Even that review isn’t equal, as one administrator may find them acceptable and another may read the same reports and expect changes. If we are only to report on the outcomes, then there should be a checklist of outcomes written in parent friendly language, with appropriate letter grades like M for met, D for developing, or E for extended beyond the outcomes. Parents also want to know about the quality of work and how other factors may influence learning. I have always used parent teacher meetings to get these points across, knowing that they would not come out in the report card. If a document is not working as a useful tool, then changes must be made. Too much teaching and planning time is taken up each term while teachers work on reports that are not useful for parents and students, and often sit unread on kitchen counters. As others have said, “Why bother?”

  9. Perhaps the responsibility for this does not fall solely on the shoulders of the educators and the education system. Educators have felt the need to “only comment on the outcomes” because those are the only thing that they can “prove”. If , as an educator someone comments on behavior or lack of effort, they have to be able to “prove it” when challenged by the families. If they comment only on the child’s ability to meet the outcome then they have the evidence to make the comments that they make. If it is change that we are hoping to see we must recognise that it must come from all of those involved in the problem, not just from one side.
    Even if we make changes to the system and allow teachers to comment on other aspects of the child’s learning and social development teachers need to know that their professionalism is not going to be called into question as soon as there is a comment that a family is not willing to hear.
    There are far more elements to this than just “parents and teachers don’t like the new report cards” the issues are deeper than that.

  10. I am a fan of having standards based reports, where we speak specifically to each individual standard, and whether the student has mastered that particular objective. It’s more measurable, meaningful, and usable for remediation.

      1. Every grade level could have an insert with the standard explained in a cheat sheet. Even then….we’d get calls. Lol. We can’t win.

      2. Oh, that would be good. “Jimmy met some of the outcomes for math” – translation? “Jimmy has no clue what he’s doing in math most of the time.” Yes, I can see us getting a few calls! 😉

      3. LOL…no!!! If we did it by standards, we’d have all the grade level benchmarks listed, and then a score. Montessori does a really good job with this, listing every skill, and then marking if the student is in progress or mastery. It would be more work, but it may be more meaningful. There has to be a way we could integrate testing data to a skill format.

        What makes me nuts is when kid fails in math, when they’ve mastered all the skills, because he didn’t do his homework. The F means NOTHING with regards to mastery. Also, when I have history teachers who are nailing kids down to a D, when they know the material backwards and forwards, but their grade is dropped because their Language Arts skills were lacking on the writing. What are you assessing, history or language arts?

      4. I like your suggestion. Keep it simple – this is what your kid was taught and this is what he demonstrated he could do.
        In terms of failing a kid for homework incompletion. That’s insane! We don’t even give a mark homework here (which is good because I don’t give it) but to fail a kid because he didn’t do his homework makes no sense to me. If he can demonstrate understanding who cares how he learned it? methinks some people have ‘control’ issues, perhaps?
        I’ve taught elementary school the past few years which means we mark all subjects other than French, Phys.Ed and Music. All of our marks are based on whether or not they meet the outcomes listed in the curriculum. It’s pretty fair but the language used to describe how the child has done is often confusing to parents. That’s where we are having a problem.

  11. I am not a teacher, but I frankly don’t find report cards confusing. I am able to glean the information I need from them, because I can read critically; I ignore the comments that are what I judge to be Orwellian doublespeak. What I always do appreciate is if the teacher has comments such as, “Dick is a good classroom citizen, cooperates well, and contributes his opinion in class discussions”, or, “Jane is capable of completing her work properly and on time when she is focused”. I am expecting my children to learn, but above all, I am hoping they will become well rounded, competent human beings with my help and the expertise of their teachers.

    To be honest, though, based on what I have read above, it seems to me that the criticism is aimed mainly at the Department of Education, people who are also teachers, unless I am incorrect. The criticism of report cards by parents could also be said to come from a minority of parents, could it not, albeit a sometimes loud minority? I am a great supporter of teachers, and I would say that most of the other parents I know are as well. But the education of our children is a very emotional issue.

    I intend no disrespect in my comments, and I am happy to hear a differing point of view. These are issues that I am genuinely curious about, but there is rarely an appropriate forum to discuss them. I think perhaps teachers…at least the good ones…tend to be very sensitive by their nature. Sometimes I have found that that makes it hard to be up front with them about my questions and comments.

    1. It’s great that you are able to read critically. Not all people are capable of doing that. That’s why it’s essential that our report cards are readable for all.

      I agree that teachers are often sensitive to comments from outsiders. I relate it to the abused dog theory. If you beat a dog enough times, it will eventually cower every time you come near it, whether you are planning to beat it or not.

      Over the years, teachers have been beat down and treated so poorly that they honestly don’t have the patience or the energy to argue anymore. Teachers go to post-secondary school for a minimum of 6 years and most go on to secure Masters degrees, which take anywhere from 2 years f/t to 5 years p/t, Yet, despite all of our training and experience and good intentions, we are often told that we don’t know what we are talking about and that we should just shut up, do our jobs, and not say anything that could upset the apple cart.

      People often think that because they went to school, they know how school works and they know how teaching should be done. Which I find very odd. I buy things in a store but I don’t pressume to know how a store should be run. I’ve been in a hospital before but I don’t think I could tell the nurses or doctors how to do their jobs. And yet people do this all the time with teachers.

      I know as parents we think, “But I know what’s best for MY child and you should do that.” That’s great in theory but your child is one of 25-35 in a classroom and each one of them has special needs and wants as well. In a perfect world, there would be one perfect brilliant loving teacher for every student but that’s not the world we live in.

      1. I understand what you are saying, and I totally agree with you. Sadly, though, this kind of mistreatment of people by other people is NOT limited to the teaching profession. As the saying goes, “Opinions are like a**holes, everybody has one”. That doesn’t make them correct, and it certainly doesn’t mean they are respectful. Consider how often even individuals in volunteer positions such as coaching and social organiziations are mistreated to the point that they are forced to quit. Often, the ones complaining the loudest are the least informed and the least likely to volunteer themselves. I think also about highly educated doctors, with whom I frequently work as a healthcare administrator. For every doctor, you can find 100 people who think she’s practically a messiah, and 100 who think she’s a moron. Because she is human, she will remember much more the comments of the moron.

        You are obviously educated, intelligent, dedicated, and concerned about your students and the education system, as are the vast majority of your colleagues. It’s what you know about YOURSELF that matters most, rather than what the rabble has to say. Have you ever heard of the book “The Four Agreements”? It was introduced to me by my yoga instructor. I’m not trying to sell you anything, but it has been life changing for me, and I reflect on them literally everyday. The Four Agreements are as follows: (I am paraphrasing)
        1. Don’t take anything personally. The things others say and do are a result of their own reality and have nothing to do with you. With this agreement, you can avoid so much needless suffering. (That’s my favorite one; seems to apply directly to your “beaten dog” comment.)
        2. Always do your best. Your best will vary from day to day. So will everyone else’s.
        3.. Speak with integrity. Let your words be impeccable. Don’t use your words against yourself or anyone else. Understand the power of your words to do harm or good.
        4. Don’t assume. Always seek clarity. With this agreement, you have the power to transform your life.

        I share that with everyone who will listen, because I find it so sad that people are so unkind to each other. None of us can be our best under those conditions. In your case as a teacher, that’s impacting children. Sad.

      2. I love those agreements. I am working on building up a thicker skin. The one thing that has been working for me is the Serenity Prayer. The “wisdom to tell the difference” is where I have the most difficulty. One day at a time though. Thanks for your feedback.

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