Are Report Cards Irrelevant?

Report card bashing is a popular pastime these days in British Columbia. And the cacophony is bound to get louder when parents discover the report cards they receive bear little resemblance to what they usually get.

Imagine a parent standing there, hand outstretched expectantly for delivery of that all important document. The apprehensive child rummages around his or her backpack for the crumpled up envelope to deliver up the much-loathed, traditional reckoning. Imagine a mother or a father tearing open that envelope, heart-beating, wondering whether this will be an occasion to celebrate with hugs and kisses or glower with frustration or tenderly offer comfort. Slowly, ever so slowly, the white sheet of paper is pulled out from behind it’s protective covering, and the parent looks at the page. Turns it over and looks again. Looks at the child fidgeting, scuffing their shoe against the floor, and gazing in wide-eyed apprehension waiting for their parent to share the news on how he or she has done.

The parent, this term, will see nothing on the page. Aside from attendance and other non-curricular related information, there will be nothing on that piece of paper, except in certain circumstances, because of the job action currently in progress by the province’s teachers.

The delivery of blank report cards is being sloughed off as a way to minimize the possibility of an outcry from parents — they’re not essential we’re being told, report cards are irrelevant anyways, so don’t worry. But before we consign all those woefully blank sheets of paper to the recycling bin, let’s look at this issue a bit further.

It seems to me that report cards are part of a larger discussion around the issue of assessment which is currently taking place in education. As a parent and active volunteer, I am not very familiar with current practices and research — I can only speak to the information I’ve gleaned through reading, asking questions, and the social media information exchanges I’ve had on-line.

Assessment FOR Learning (AFL) seems to be the approach now being embraced in education circles. This is a process for providing feedback to students — not graded and not numerical — to help them understand where they stand with their learning and the steps they need to take to progress. I think this sounds like a wonderful new approach with lots of potential to create a safer environment for students in which to risk and to strive and to achieve. It also seems designed to help them develop a sense of ownership for their own learning, a critical skill.

However, given the way our society is currently structured, I don’t see how we can escape completely from coming back, at some point, to marking, to a grade, to a numerical value which is presented as a summary of student achievement.

The form and content of a report card still serves a useful function. It provides a snapshot, a quick look at where a student stands at a certain point in time. There may be weaknesses with this approach, but it does actually cover a lot of territory in a relatively quick and efficient way.

To prepare parents for the seemingly absurd — actually, surreal — experience of receiving blank report cards the push has been to assert that teachers will provide information on how students are doing, and so forth. I have no doubt they are endeavouring to do so.

But let’s consider: when report cards are sent home, there will be a certain percentage of parents who request a follow-up with the teacher because of concerns they have regarding their child’s assessment. However, it seems to me that the larger proportion of parents accept the report card without question. Are we cognizant of the additional time commitment on teachers if report cards are eliminated and instead of speaking with only those parents who do follow up, being required to provide assessments by speaking to ALL parents? In speaking today to a Trustee from another provincial jurisdiction there are also those parents who may be hesitant to approach teachers and schools. To them, the report card is the primary means of communication they rely on. While we may want to focus on community outreach to allay such reluctance, maybe we need to be aware that report cards do represent a valid mode of communication for a subset of parents.

I think the focus on assessment is crucial: both the assessment for students in school for their learning and as a means of sharing information with those outside the confines of the classroom and the school. And perhaps there will be better models — maybe there already are — for reporting out and maybe we do have to consider at what age and for which students numerical values or letter grades for performance are appropriate.

Until we get there, let’s not label report cards irrelevant: they aren’t. Let’s focus instead on finding the combination of form and content which will make assessment and reporting meaningful, productive, supportive, and transformative for all students.