Report Cards Need Clarity: ‘Edu-babble’ not helpful for students

Commentary, Education, Michael Zwaagstra

There is a lot of parent dissatisfaction across Manitoba with the way schools report on student achievement. If there wasn’t, Premier Greg Selinger would never have made his surprise announcement about a standardized report card to be used in all public schools by the 2012-2013 school year.

In far too many schools, parents find themselves struggling to decipher the incomprehensible edu-babble used to describe the academic progress of their children. Instead of traditional percentage grades supplemented with a few anecdotal comments, parents now wade through a long list of outcomes with generic statements such as “meets expectations.”

Proponents of “outcomes-based” report cards argue that percentage grades do a poor job of accurately reflecting student achievement. All the latest research shows that students learn best when report cards de-emphasize competition and grades, or so they claim.

The problem with this statement is that it is highly misleading. There are many different types of education research but much of it is highly subjective and anecdotal. Of course, there is systematic inquiry and research in education, but often the results are not strong enough to identify exactly what teachers should or should not do in their classrooms. Thus, school administrators cannot simply hide behind the research argument when implementing a new report card system.

Unfortunately, too many school administrators are taken in by the claims made by assessment gurus such as Ken O’Connor and Damian Cooper. In addition to promoting the elimination of percentage grades, these same gurus advocate taking away the ability of teachers to deduct marks for late work or give zeroes for assignments not handed in. The provinces of Manitoba and Ontario actually went so far as to entrench the recommendations of O’Connor and Cooper as official policy.

However, these policies were so disastrous that the Ontario government recently announced it was reversing its assessment policy and authorizing teachers to once again hold students accountable for deadlines they fail to meet. Manitoba’s education minister, Nancy Allan, has indicated that Manitoba is likely to follow suit in the near future. After this debacle, one wonders how anyone can take any assessment recommendations made by O’Connor and Cooper seriously.

A province-wide standardized report card may be a positive development provided that it is designed properly. While the premier stated that the report cards will use clear language and stay away from edu-babble, he was disappointingly vague about what this change actually means.

Most importantly, the government needs to decide whether to mandate the return of percentage grades to middle years (grades 5-8) report cards. Percentage grades are currently mandatory for grades 9-12 but there is currently no requirement for percentages to be used in earlier grades. This policy vacuum has made it possible for many school divisions to replace percentage grades with frustratingly imprecise checklists.

At a minimum, the province should mandate that percentage grades be used for all middle years report cards. One of the distinct advantages of percentage grades is that they are readily understood by parents. Virtually all parents know that a mark of 65 is better than 50 while a mark of 85 is better yet.

In contrast, when report cards simply have long lists of outcomes with numbers 1-4 listed beside them, parents find it almost impossible to understand how their children are doing. Furthermore, they cannot even encourage their children to improve their grades since there are no grades to improve.

Percentage grades also have the added advantage of conveying additional precision in reporting. While the difference between a mark of 90 and a mark of 95 may be minimal, those extra 5 percentage points can mean a lot to a student who worked hard to improve her mark. This will no longer happen if percentage grades are replaced by nebulous phrases such as “meets expectations.”

Parents deserve to receive accurate and readily understandable information on the achievement and progress of their children. They should not receive report cards with information that is difficult for them to interpret. For this reason, let’s hope the province resists pressure from the educational establishment to keep percentages off report cards.

If the province is serious about improving the reporting process, it can start by mandating the return of percentage grades to middle years report cards. That alone would be a welcome change from the incomprehensible edu-babble that many parents are forced to endure.