Wednesday, November 17, 2010

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 agree. Why have grades at all for elementary school students? At the very least they should make them optional at the request of the parent. It must be a ton of work for the teachers, and if the parents are satisfied with talking to the teacher at the parent-teacher conference (and at other times), and even think that the grades are creating a harmful dynamic among the kids, why make the teachers do it?

  2. Chris -- I heard from a teacher on Twitter that there is a school in our board whose parents have agreed as a group not to receive report cards; they participate in parent-teacher interviews, but that's it. Interesting idea, but I'm quite sure the parents in our school would never agree to it. Most of them are opposed to this new fall report card because there are no actual grades. Perhaps I live in the wrong neighbourhood....

  3. northTO, can I re-post this to Kid-Friendly Schools? Thanks.

  4. Sure, you can re-post it to KFS if you don't think it's too specific to our particular board/school system, etc.

  5. This is my first experience with progress reports as the first set went home last year when I was on sabbatical. I guess my school must have been in the pilot project. I found them to be just as much work as regular report cards, the only change being that the grades were replaced by the three progressing options. We were told, at least at my school, to use the ministry generated "parent friendly" comments, which may account for why the comments feel so cookie cutter. As for surprises in the February report cards, I would say there may be some, as there is a huge range of achievement between "progressing with difficulty" and "progressing well".

    I know I sound like a broken record sometimes, but not all teachers "grade" everything students do. Unfortunately, there are a lot of parents who are grade focussed, which in part drives things that happen in a particular school. Personally, I prefer to assess in a variety of non invasive ways, encouraging the students to correct their own work with assistance until they are satisfied with what they have done. I never put a mark on the top of the page, although I do sometimes stamp or sticker for encouragement in French cahiers because so many students struggle with core French. I don't think elementary school students should be graded, and I really dislike the fact that students get percentages in grades 7 and 8, which in my opinion is too young. Learning in school is the most important. Period.

  6. Kat -- Thanks for your comment. I think you're right that the emphasis on grades is partly driven by parents. On the other hand, I believe individual schools, principals, and even teachers have considerable leeway when it comes to how they grade. Your way of grading--e.g., not grading everything, not putting marks on the top of the page, encouraging self-correction, etc.--sounds pretty reasonable. But it makes me wonder why more teachers don't grade that way. Are teachers given directives on how to grade and how much of a student's work to grade?

    As for the progress reports, I now think that the focus on "work habits" comes with its own set of problems. (See my recent post on agendas.)