Monday, 10 October 2011

If you could design a report card, what would it look like?

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Though BC teachers are not producing report cards this fall, we have been encouraged to communicate with parents regarding student progress.  At first, I was frustrated by comments from the BC Teachers' Federation which stated that teachers would continue to communicate closely with parents.  I love it when parents check in with me about their child's progress, and feel that it is vital for parents to be involved and informed about what is happening in the classroom, but felt overwhelmed by the idea of communicating with 200 parents without a formal report card.  While an elementary school teacher may be able to speak to parents as they pick their children up, and compose a short e-mail at the end of each term, reporting to parents is much more challenging in a linear secondary school.

As job action continued through September, I began to think of a number of concerns:
  • How can I report to 200 parents, without using the online spreadsheet programs which are not suited to my assessment philosophy?
  • Should I only respond to the parents who contact me by phone or e-mail?
  • What will I do if I get 150 e-mails and 50 phone calls?
  • Will I have time to respond if 45 parents request a meeting with me?
  • Can I trust students to accurately report their progress to parents after student-teacher conferences in class?
  • Are parents aware that, if I have a concern about attendance and progress, I will contact them?  (I have already exchanged e-mails with a number of parents and will continue to do so when concerns arise.)
  • While I love the idea of sending a few positive interim reports home, and try to do so each term, will I have time to do that this year?
  • Are we supposed to rely on the fact that a large percentage of parents will not contact us, therefore making our reporting time more manageable as we meet with parents, return phone calls, and respond to e-mails?  If so, is it good practice to ignore the parents who do not initiate communication with teachers?
While I like to inform parents about student progress throughout the year, I do not use grading programs which allow parents to log in to review marks, as I don't want to perpetuate the idea that assessment is simply giving points for correct answers and averaging them out over the term to determine a final grade.  I blogged more about my assessment philosophy here and this article also explains my feelings about these programs.  I use spreadsheets to track assignments, but do not base final marks on averages throughout the term.  Marks are based on the student's most recent and consistent progress.  When I have concerns, I send an e-mail or make a phone call to a parent.  On occasion, I mail written interim reports.

When report card season approaches, I often feel frustrated because, while outcomes-based assessment is being promoted by a number of well-regarded education professionals, and district-based pro-d sessions, it is much easier for teachers of 200 students to enter numbers into BCeSIS, choose a work habit, and insert a generic comment.  Why isn't there a program which provides us with the opportunity to send parents meaningful assessment and class updates, without the "spreadsheet" format?

After thinking about my questions and concerns, I realized something HUGE.

The BC Teachers' job action has provided me with an opportunity to report on student assessment in any format of my choice.

Why didn't I think of this sooner?  No BCeSIS!  No deadlines!  No obligation to post 200 percentages at once!  This is awesome!

While I have the opportunity to add attachments to formal report cards when they are issued, I have never had the time to consider this option as I always feel swamped with other tasks around report card time.  With no formal report card deadlines, I will have the flexibility to issue more meaningful reports over a longer period of time.

It is important for me to note that these reports will be for teacher, parent, and student use only and will not be sent to administrators, in accordance with BCTF job action guidelines.  My union local has confirmed that letters from teachers, checklists, percentages, and letter grades may be sent to parents as long as they are not completed on official school forms and do not look like report cards.  It is not my desire to undermine the job action.  Rather, I am taking the time that I would have spent using BCeSIS (a reporting program I dislike) and using this time to create a more meaningful and effective report.  In the spirit of the job action, which reduces our involvement in administrative tasks, I feel that this is an appropriate use of time.  We have been encouraged to continue communicating with parents; in this case, I feel that parents will receive better communication from me than they did before job action, as I am not spending time creating formal report cards using a soon-to-be-extinct reporting system.

Our office staff is still mailing out paper interim reports, and job action permits us to send these, as well as e-mail updates to parents.  I am now planning to send home paper (or e-mail) interim reports, created during term conferences with my students.

Here are a few things I would like to incorporate as I design these interim reports:

1) The reports will not include percentages.

I hate percentages.  Student A has 82% and so does Student B.  On paper, they are "equal" but, in the classroom, each brings unique strengths and experiences unique challenges.  Both may receive a mark of 82% and a "Good" for work habits, but this does not sufficiently explain their progress.  As well, what is the difference between a mark of 73% and a mark of 76%?  I have no answer for the question and have never heard one that satisfies me.  "BCeSIS averaged the mark to 76%" is not a sufficient answer, in my opinion.

Through the current reporting procedures, we have conditioned students and parents to expect percentages in secondary school.  Why do secondary report cards need to differ so much from primary comments and intermediate letter grades?  (That's a question for another blog entry!)  While I would prefer to issue "gradeless" reports, I realize that parents and students will want to see some sort of report of progress.  As a compromise, my interim reports will include a letter grade, but no percentage.

***DECEMBER 2011 UPDATE: I did choose to include percentages in reports at the end of December, simply to avoid receiving 200 e-mails asking, "What is his/her percentage?"  I also worried that the lack of percentage would be perceived as "lazy teacher during job action," not a shift in assessment philosophy.  That said, students seem to be responding well to the idea of holistic assessment, as they know that they can improve throughout the term and year.  I realized that this helps them to see me as somebody who is helping them to move to the next "level," not somebody who is constantly judging them and holding mistakes against them.

2) The reports will involve my students.

As I had already decided to use portfolio-based assessment this year, these interim reports will be completed in conferences with students.  At the end of the conferences for each class, I will proofread, press "print," and take the reports to the office to be mailed.  If I have time, I may e-mail some of the reports home to save paper.  As I always do, I will need to plan my lessons carefully so that students are engaged in self-directed activities during grade conferences.  Students will be asked to fill out self assessment forms, which will give students a chance to think and articulate their views prior to our meeting.  I find that the self-assessment forms help us to focus our conference discussions and save time, particularly in larger classes.  I hope to do this again around mid-February.  While I would like to report in this format more frequently, I have a feeling that time will not permit it.  As I think about this, I am beginning to think that reports prepared during student-teacher conferences will be more meaningful, and more enjoyable for me, than a few hours with a cup of tea and BCeSIS.  I will be able to include comments from students' self assessments in the reports.  (Thank goodness I can type quickly!)

***DECEMBER 2011 UPDATE: I was able to do mid-term conferences with students in most classes but, by the time those were over, it was getting close to the end of the term.  I prepared reports based on my conferences, written student self evaluations, and updated student work.  Next term, I hope to spend more time conferencing with students. The conferences themselves were very valuable; a number of students communicated things that I wouldn't have learned otherwise.  It's amazing how many students have experienced test anxiety in previous years and are willing to share that one-on-one but might not admit it in front of the class.  More knowledge about my students has helped me to structure my courses.

3) The reports will inform parents about what is happening in class.

Parents will be directed to my course website so that they can view the course outline.  As well, I will include a short paragraph for each course, regarding current and upcoming activities.  This is more in line with the elementary school format, but I like it.  Parents often comment that they don't have any idea what their teens are doing in school.

As well, I will mention that, if I have concerns about a student' attendance and progress, I will contact home more frequently.  I don't want parents to feel that they are being left in the dark by job action or that their child may fail a course without any warning from the school.  I always communicate with home regarding absences and academic concerns; this will not change but, without formal reports, it is more important to let parents know that this is the process in my class.

Parents will also be invited to e-mail me if they have questions or concerns but, after receiving these written reports, I hope that it will decrease the number of meetings requested and e-mails received.  While I love communicating with parents, I need to consider the time involved if each parent requests a phone call or meeting and hope that issuing these reports will be a proactive way to address concerns about teacher-parent communication during job action.

4) The reports will focus on achievement of key outcomes and concepts.

I'm not sure how I will format this yet, but I like the idea of including a few key concepts or skills from the term on each report.  I might include a "Fully meeting expectations," "Meeting expectations," etc. checkbox beside each.  (Elementary school report cards seems to be closer to my preferred format.)  I have to consider the time involved, but I do love the idea of explaining where the grade comes from, using a few key learning outcomes, rather than simply inserting a percentage into BCeSIS.

**OCTOBER 2011 UPDATE: I created a rubric for four of my five courses.  Drafts are posted here and were tweaked and edited as the term progressed.  I am finding it a long and time-consuming process to create the "perfect" rubric but I have to accept that this is a process and hope to have a high-quality report by the end of the year.

As I continue to think about my "ideal" report card, I wonder if I am creating an unnecessary, time-consuming project for myself, but I am excited to give this reporting system a chance.  I can conference with students, and create reports, in one or two courses per week.  A lack of formal deadlines allows me to spend more time reporting on a course, if required, and reduces the "end of term" assignment completion rush I typically see from students.  I think it will work.

If you have any thoughts, ideas, or samples for me, I would love to have input from other teachers.  Our Term 1 reports would have been issued before Christmas Break.  I am hoping to finish with this project by the end of November, at the latest, and will post an update when it is complete.

I would also love to figure out a way to update parents electronically, without composing 200 separate e-mails.  I have a few ideas, but would love to hear from you if you have any suggestions.

Update: The next part of this adventure is described here.


  1. " While an elementary school teacher may be able to speak to parents as they pick their children up, and compose a short e-mail at the end of each term..."

    I think that would be a significant challenge for most elementary teachers.

  2. I know that communication with parents must be challenging at the elementary level as well. I'd love to hear how elementary teachers are communicating with parents during the job action as I don't have frequent contact with elementary teachers.

    As I send about 15 e-mails to parents each week, the idea of e-mailing 24-30 parents each term doesn't seem too daunting, but I know that time is limited for teachers at all levels. If I were teaching elementary, I think that time spent composing thirty short updates would provide the term-end update that parents like, take less time than traditional report cards, and likely reduce the number of phone calls and requests for meetings. I'm imagining a paragraph or two containing a generic update on class events, followed by a short paragraph about each student's general progress.

  3. Great to see you finding a positive outcome of job action. I have used some of your methods in the past and look forward to your reflections after getting this done.

  4. Your observation that you have significantly more freedom right now is interesting. I wonder how many other teachers will realize that, and make similar changes in their grading practice.

    I wonder how often "times of crisis" or upheaval in a system lead to innovation...

    Great work Megan, way to find a Pollyannic perspective on this issue.

  5. Wow, great leadership around taking advantage of a time like this. I look forward to hearing how parents respond. The percentage is so easy for parents to understand and when I went away from this, there was some backlash as I did not communicate very clearly. Be sure to include parents in the process of this method of summative assessment and then model this for future reporting periods! Very inspiring!

  6. Also.... present this to participants at Edcamp Fraser Valley on Dec 3 at Garibaldi! :-)

  7. Thanks to Chris for posting this on Twitter.

    Excellent post. Really gets to the heart of the assessment process and what it should truly be about. The sooner we can do away with percentages, focus on key concepts and make students the architects of their own learning the better.

  8. Thanks for all the positive feedback! Much appreciated!

    I've already registered for Edcamp Fraser Valley. Looking forward to my first Edcamp experience! :)

    I might cave on percentages at the end of the first term. The interims I'm writing right now are gradeless, but I think I might need to issue percentages at term-end to make my life easier. If not, I could have 200 e-mails asking what the student's percentage is. Will keep thinking on it.

  9. I have been wanting to do my own midstream reports with parents and think these would be far more valuable throughout the year with a year end report card for record purposes. I think setting up a shared document for each student that could be an ongoing work in progress for the teacher, student and parent to comment and collaborate on would be the way I'd organize it. Basically feedback with Strengths and Areas for Growth rather than percentages would still be possible. It would take some explanation but I think it'd work really well. I love the idea and possibilities!

  10. Megan,
    Thank you so much for sharing so freely about your thoughts, questions, and ideas surrounding assessment.

    Even as an elementary teacher I've struggled with the same types of thoughts surrounding letter grades and what types of assignments should be used to compose that letter grade.

    I'm excited to hear how it goes for you over the next couple of weeks and I think anytime you are brave enough to pursue a new idea, theory, or practice there is value in it despite the outcome.