Parents Want Better Report Cards

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Recently, the Frontier Centre received a letter from a mother concerned about the quality of the report card brought home by her daughter who attends Grade 4 at a Winnipeg public school.

Specifically, she questioned why students no longer receive percentage grades or comments such as excellent, good, satisfactory, poor, etc. Instead students are assessed on a four-point rubric scale in which a “grade” of 1 or 2 means that the student is working below grade level, a 3 means working at grade level and 4 means that the student is well above grade level. It is not surprising that this parent’s daughter as well as most of her classmates received marks of 3 since all of these students are in Grade 4 — it is hardly revolutionary to be told that most students are working at grade level.

It would be hard to devise a less informative reporting method. As this parent rightly pointed out, without meaningful evaluations of achievement, there is no motivation for students to try harder. Her daughter’s school newsletter tells parents to expect their children to receive mostly 3’s since marks of 4 are received only for exceptional students. Perhaps the only “advantage” to this system is that it makes report card time extremely simple for teachers—too simple. Parents have the right to more specific information, not simply to be told that their child is working “at grade level.” The removal of scores simply removes precision in evaluation from report cards and leave parents wondering just how their child is progressing.

This same parent also pointed out that her daughter was assessed as being a low-average student in her previous school. Her daughter had to work hard on her multiplication facts, study for tests, and complete regular homework. In her new school her class spends more time on “show and tell” than on math, she receives virtually no homework, her work is rarely marked by her teacher and she never has any unit tests that she needs to study for.

At her daughter’s “student-led conference” this fall, her mother was told that her daughter has now become a top student. The question becomes, did this student really progress from being a “low average” student to a “top” student overnight or have the assessment standards simply declined to a lower level?

It would be reassuring if the circumstances encountered by this parent were isolated to this particular division or this particular school. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case. The trend in modern educational circles is to discount the importance of accurate and precise reporting on student achievement and instead to focus on more general processes of learning which are often almost impossible to quantify.

One of the most prolific of these progressive educators is Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve, No Contest: The Case Against Competition, Punished by Rewards and many other books and articles. In these books, Kohn argues against giving students grades based upon performance and instead advocates that students be evaluated on the basis of portfolios and performance assessments. Kohn is even bold enough to state that the only reason most parents don’t support getting rid of grading is because they have not had the opportunity to see how wonderful a student-led discussion of their portfolio can be. Well, the mother with the grade 4 daughter would beg to differ as would, likely, many other parents.

In his most recent book, The Schools our Children Deserve, Kohn has a chart with a list of possible reasons to worry if certain things are seen in a classroom. Here are some excerpts from his list: chairs all facing forward in rows, the teacher located at the front of the room, an emphasis on facts and right answers, a list of rules created by an adult, sticker (or star) charts or other evidence that students are rewarded or ranked and students working independently after the teacher has finished the lesson.

Lest anyone think that Alfie Kohn’s ideas are outside the mainstream of educational thought in Manitoba, he has been a guest speaker at teacher professional development workshops conducted at various school divisions in Winnipeg. He will also be speaking at a Manitoba Teachers’ Society seminar on assessment early in the spring of 2003. His topic? The deadly effects of tougher standards for students. It’s a good bet that professors and students from the Education Faculty will be there and, unfortunately, it will be ideas like these that influence teachers entering the profession.

What can be done about this situation? Parents need to push their school trustees for policies that require schools to have report cards that more meaningfully and accurately record student progress and achievement. Better yet, the provincial government should step in and announce the re-implementation of compulsory grade level standards exams along with a clear set of guidelines for accuracy in school report cards.

These reforms will take place only if concerned parents and taxpayers make their voices heard. Teachers, administrators, school boards and the provincial government all need to hear a loud and clear message that standards for students matter and that parents expect evidence that children are learning in school.