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Talking to teachers may be better than a report card

How many times has Junior hidden his report card or pitched it out of the school bus window on his way home?

Maybe he's ashamed he didn't get an A in math. Perhaps his buddies were comparing grades, a kind of academic "king of the castle," and he didn't come out on top.

In a perfect world, his progress at school wouldn't be tracked and judged by a row of letter grades or a string of percentage points, experts say. The ideal report card may not be a report card at all – it may be a good old-fashioned parent-teacher chat.

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News this week that graded fall report cards will soon be history for Ontario students has renewed the debate over the best way to share how a child is doing at school. Parents argue the As, Bs and Cs don't give them a complete picture of how their child is doing in school. Ontario's teachers unions say there's not enough time during the fall months to make a clear judgment on a kid's performance.

Educators should be exploring a grade-free report card, says Linda Cameron, an associate professor of education at the University of Toronto's Ontario Institute for Studies in Education.

"The root of evaluation is to value," she says. "How do I value [that child] honestly with integrity, wisdom and as much knowledge as I can? A letter grade doesn't do it and can't ever do it."

Instead, she says, a report card should be an observation-driven letter that sets the agenda for a parent-teacher interview. It would drop the anxiety that marks often invite and make the discussions on a child's progress less defensive and more productive, she says.

As a young teacher at Toronto's Earlscourt public school in the 1970s, Dr. Cameron experimented with grade-free, narrative report cards to much success, she says. Parents came in for interview evenings and kids showed off their work.

"As a teacher, that [method] I felt, honoured the child the most and gave me the most opportunity to help the parents understand their progress," she says.

In Canada's standardized evaluation system, there's no such thing as A for effort, she says. Wanting their child to go above and beyond, parents also forget that a B is considered a really good grade according to provincial standards, she adds.

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Some advocates recommend nixing report cards altogether.

Parent-teacher conferences are a much better alternative, says Alfie Kohn, the Boston-based author of The Schools Our Children Deserve .

Research shows that giving students letter grades makes them lose interest in learning, since the aim becomes snagging that high grade point average, he says. It also drives them to choose the easiest possible path because they know it will be rewarded by a high mark.

If schools must continue with report cards, he suggests teachers swap the letter and number grades for "qualitative comments" and have the child show parents portfolios of their work. In some U.S. schools, parents can choose between coming in for a parent-teacher (and child) interview or receive a letter grade at home, he says.

Another way to track a child's progress is by giving parents examples. Canadian schools are already offering "exemplars" of work that show the expectations, says Charles Ungerleider, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia and director of research and knowledge mobilization at the Canadian Council on Learning.

"I can show you as a parent 'This is the sort of work that meets this standard in writing, or reading or numeracy for youngsters at the grade level in which your youngster is enrolled. Let's look at some of the features of the acceptable work your son or daughter is doing in relation to that.'"

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Robert Marzano, an education researcher in Denver, says an ideal report card would give an overall number grade for math, for example, then give marks for each unit within that class.

"It gives a more accurate picture," he says. "So what happens is, instead of saying, 'I can't do math,' it's 'I can't do computation.' There's more clear focus as to what's going wrong."

Let's talk about that C

OISE professor Linda Cameron's tips on how to make report cards a good experience for everyone:

  • “Celebrate what the child has done well,” she says. Report cards are about tracking successes, not just pinpointing places to improve.
  • Talk through the report card with your kids. “Even in kindergarten, kids are able to talk about how they actually feel about the grades they got and whether [they think]the teacher got it right.”
  • Put the province’s expectations in perspective. “Help [kids] understand that a C is considered average,” she says, but don’t totally dismiss what the grades represent.
  • Assure children they don’t have to be perfect in every subject. “We all have different strengths. I may only achieve expectations in math, but maybe I’m at the A level in music.”
  • Contact the teacher if you need further explanation. “It’s really important that parents and teachers communicate.”
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