Saturday, March 6, 2010

The New Report Cards: D (Achievement falls much below the parental standard)

My daughters' school was one of 19 in the Toronto District School Board that participated in a pilot program designed to test new, improved elementary report cards. In the second term report card—issued March 3—teachers were able to choose from a bank of comments that have been, according to the TDSB, simplified and purged of unnecessary jargon. The pilot project was spearheaded by school Trustee Howard Goodman who was responding to long-standing complaints by parents about the language used in report cards in Ontario. There is no question that the comments section of the old report cards was jargon-heavy. Take, for instance, this written assessment accompanying my daughter's mark in writing from last term's report card (grade 5):

In writing, with a high degree of effectiveness, [. . .] can identify and order main ideas and supporting details and group them into units that could be used to develop several linked paragraphs in order to write narrative texts.

The trouble with this sentence is not only the educational jargon and awkward construction (in a note on writing!), it is also that, as with most of the other comments, the wording is lifted practically verbatim from the abstrusely written guidelines of the reformist, Harris-era curriculum. (In fact, I would argue that much of the animosity towards the language of report cards is in reality animosity towards a curriculum whose pedagogical clarity and soundness many parents question. But that is an issue for another post.) Goodman has pointed out that provincial law does not require teachers to draw comments from curriculum documents; the habit of doing so, he believes, results in parents having a hard time understanding the written assessments. I find this attitude a bit patronizing. Yes, the writing is full of jargon; it is awkward, inelegant, you name it. But any reasonably intelligent, literate adult can understand it. Granted, as Goodman also points out, there are many parents in the Toronto area whose first language is not English, and for that reason alone, simplification of the comment bank is justified. The new comments are indeed simpler. Here, for example, is the new writing comment from my daughter's second term report card (same daughter, same mark):

In Writing, [. . . ] competently produces a variety of written pieces (procedures, opinions, and marketing[!]) for various reasons.

Simpler yes, more informative, no. The real failing—of both the old and the new comments, and by extension, both the old and the new report cards—is that they are completely impersonal. I find it especially revealing that my other daughter, who is in the same class and who achieved slightly different marks in writing, received identical comments for this subject in the fall and winter reports. In fact, although my daughters could not be more different—not in ability, but in the particular nature of their abilities—their comments in both report cards are virtually indistinguishable.

What is abundantly clear to me, then, is that neither the first nor the second term comments tell me anything about my daughters' specific skills: about how, for instance, one has taught herself to rhyme in French because she enjoys writing poetry (my daughters are in French immersion), or how the other has worked especially hard on her composition, learning to use verb books and dictionaries because she wants to express herself more precisely and accurately in French. The comments tell me, in other words, absolutely nothing that pertains to my actual children. And that is the problem with comment banks in general, simplified or not.

To their credit, Goodman and the people at TDSB have used the occasion of report card reform to encourage teachers to exercise the option of using more personal comments. The reality is that most teachers, presented with a comment bank, will use it. I don't even really fault them for this. I'm not one of those parents who believe teachers have too much time on their hands—quite the contrary: I know they work extremely hard. I understand that preparing report cards is grueling, time-consuming work. Nevertheless, I think comment banks should be gradually phased out, at least for the core subjects, and perhaps teachers could be given a little extra time to prepare report cards. (Reducing the number of graded report cards from three to two, as the Ontario Ministry of Education is proposing, could help, but only if the proposed ungraded fall "progress report" does not end up replicating, via standardized comments, the graded winter and spring reports.) One sentence about an actual, flesh-and-bones child would speak volumes more than any statement, however complicated or simple, drawn from a list of impersonal, one-size-fits-all comments.

Footnote: When I asked my daughters what they thought of the new comments, they both told me that they didn't notice a difference because they don't read them, focusing instead on the actual marks. When I asked why, one daughter said that the comments aren't important because they're just general remarks about what they're learning. End result: student preoccupation with grades, which I'm sure is not the TDSB's intention—or is it?

Thanks for reading. NorthTOmom