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Student Reports: Why Independent Schools Retain Grades

Paul W. Bennett

School report cards are supposed to be for parents and kids. During report time, they are laboriously prepared by teachers and anxiously awaited by most families with school children. In the parent-school relationship, they are a critical linkage. That may explain why school boards and Departments of Education in recent years have embraced “report card reform” and sought to exercise a greater role in determining their design and content.

The whole public debate must sound strange to most Canadian independent school parents. Many parents choose private schools to escape such from such initiatives. In Parent Satisfaction Surveys, traditional reports with real marks or grades continue to be popular. Clearly written, meaningful, personalized reports with solid marks never seem to go out of fashion.

Since the introduction of computerized reports, student reporting has become another contested terrain in public education. Standardized provincial reports, championed by educrats and zealously promoted by student evaluation experts, have been tried several times since the early 1990′s. Yet, somehow, student reports with grades continue to be popular with parents, leaving the “experts” in perpetual turmoil.

Ontario initiated the latest round of “report card reform” by announcing that the Ministry of Education would issuing fall report cards without real marks to elementary school pupils starting in the fall term 2010.  In Nova Scotia, PowerSchool provides a flashy new $4.5 million centralized SIS with province-wide attendance tracking and its own brand of standardized student reports.
Student Reports: Why Independent Schools Retain Grades
The Nova Scotia pilot project was very rushed rushed and turned into a schmozzle with new mid-term reports delayed in many of the 78 pilot schools. Most, if not all, of the new reports were not even available in advance of the most recent round of parent-teacher interviews.

Although Ontario is no longer considered Canada’s leading education province, its public education reforms have a way of popping-up elsewhere, and particularly in the Atlantic provinces.  So far, Ontario is the only province moving to only two elementary report cards with letter grades per year.  In 2010-11, one will be issued in late January or early February, the other at the end of the school year in June.

For veterans of earlier battles in the early 1990′s against “dumbed-down” standardized student reports the early signs are ominous. While the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government is now championing the cause, the whole idea came from the elementary teachers’ federation, and not parents.

Nova Scotia’s latest education reform is driven by Pearson Education software technology imported from California and promises to provide students and parents with more timely information on achievement, homework, attendance, and grades.  While the province’s reports retain traditional marks, the Grade 1 to 8 form employs an ordinal system that tops out at “meeting learning outcomes” and uses the familiar checklist full of edu-babble  drawn from current student evalution theory.

The first real skirmish is now underway now in Ontario.  ”Education Premier” McGuinty claims to be promoting “clear, understandable reports” written “in plain English.”  Close educational observers remain skeptical.  Opposition PC Leader Tim Hudak  has junked the new fall Progress Report and called for the restoration of grades. The new Cards are already generating a decidedly mixed parent response on the People for Education online community site. Given the general orientation of P4E, this is of particular significance.

A recent CBC-TV News report on The National featured a Toronto Board consultant offering  a bizarre comment.  When asked why grades had been eliminated, she contended that ‘bad marks’ lowered a pupil’s ‘self-esteem.’”

Standardized Report Cards are a bone of contention in the ongoing debate over the real purposes of teaching and learning in our public schools. Just when education reformers think that the so-called “romantic progressives” are in retreat, they come up with new ways of ‘socializing’ today’s students in pursuit of what Kathleen Gow once termed the “God of self-esteem.”

When it comes to Report Cards, school boards across Canada are moving in different directions. While Ontario is abolishing “grades” on fall mid-terms, both Nova Scotia and the Edmonton Catholic School Board are wrestling with implementing PowerSchool systems, including standardized reports. Meanwhile, two Edmonton public schools are experimenting with monthly reporting, utilizing the competing SchoolZone system.

Trust is the underlying issue in public education.  One prime example: After Outcome-based education and No Child Left Behind, and their Canadian variations, what parent would believe that “meeting provincial outcomes” has any real meaning? They would have to be inhabiting a bubble to accept such claims at face value.

No one ever asks why independent private schools never have parents complaining about student reporting. On the Parent Satisfaction Surveys at Lower Canada College in Montreal, some 90 to 95% of parents consistently ranked the reports as “highly satisfactory” or “outstanding” and, on the other end, the food service always “needed improvement.”

Why are clear, readable and meaningful reports still in fashion? Take a look at those school reports. What makes them far superior?

One look at most Canadian independent school reports and a parent sees that the teachers actually know their child or teenager. No centralized, bureaucratic, criterion-referenced, edu-babble-ridden system can compete on those grounds. Is such a model scalable? It might be worth considering.

[Dr. Paul W. Bennett is Director of Schoolhouse Consulting, Halifax, author of The Grammar School (2009), and online editor of EduBlog at www.schoolhouseconsulting.ca.]

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