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When teacher Joe Bower sits down this month to write up the report cards for his Grade 6 class in Red Deer, Alta., he will first put this question to his students: What do they think their marks should be? He does not always agree, but they usually come pretty close, and they learn how to assess their own efforts. He then adds his observations from class and studies the portfolio of their class work - though there is not a single grade on any essay or project.

Five years ago, Mr. Bower took the controversial step of tossing out regular grades. No longer would his students get their tests back and obsess over where they ranked in the class, ignoring the long hours he spent on comments. What were grades anyway, he thought, but an arbitrary way to sort students and make life simpler for teachers?

He feels the same about report cards: Students would take them home, he says, "thinking about their own hides" or expecting bribes for doing well. He issues marks because he is required to give them. But grades are only "autopsies," he argues - a good report card should be a forward-looking "physical" that tells students where and how they can learn more.

Grades aren't likely to vanish, strong as the arguments may be against them. But thinking like Mr. Bower's is part of a growing debate over how to create the perfect report card, which would communicate properly to parents, allow for proper assessment and still motivate students. Often packed with "edu-babble," as one expert calls it, the cards have increasingly become a source of confusion for parents, who have to interpret marks represented by numbers or letters or percentages, depending on the province or school board.

"Parents just want to know where their kids are," says Michael Zwaagstra, a father of four and a high-school social-studies teacher in Steinbach, Man., who also writes about education reform. "They aren't interested in a report card they have sit down and decipher for half an hour."

Prompted by growing complaints from parents and concerns from teachers, several provinces and individual school boards - as well as school districts in the United States - are in the process of reviewing their report cards, or introducing new ones. Education reform, and in particular how to assess students and teachers, is a general trend - so report cards, which vary widely across the country, are a natural target.

Quebec will introduce a new format next September. In October, Manitoba announced a consultation process, and the Saskatoon public school board is piloting a new version. In Ontario, parents are receiving a "progress report" in place of the fall report card after teachers complained that November did not give them enough time to fully assess students with grades. It will note whether students are "progressing well, very well or with difficulty."

And, after more than a decade, Ontario has reversed the guideline (implemented inconsistently by schools anyway) that late assignments should not be marked down - and teachers could not give zeroes. Manitoba is expected to make the same announcement in two weeks, and Saskatchewan is also reviewing the issue.

Not marking down for late assignments - a guideline that directly affects report cards - was an example, educators say, of a well-meaning approach that failed. The theory was that teachers should mark students only on the substance of their work, not the behaviour around it, to encourage and motivate them better.

But, once deadlines didn't matter, some students felt no incentive to meet them. Others complained about a double standard. "There were some habitual abusers of timelines," says Ken Coran, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation. "And other students were saying, 'What's up with this? Is there a deadline, or isn't there?' "

The rules also baffled many parents and raised concerns that students were not being properly prepared for the expectations of university classes. (Ontario's new policy, which will shape guidelines developed at the board level, stresses teachers' making marking decisions based on context and their own expertise.)

At the same, the idea that behaviour should be distinct from marks has shaped much of the new conversation around report cards. Quebec's new version, which differs slightly depending on whether it is for elementary, middle or high school, contains more room for detailed comments by teachers and moves toward percentages for most grades, with class averages included. In Saskatoon, a new report card being piloted has added specific learning skills, such "uses time effectively" and "learns well with others," assessments that already exist in some provinces. And Ontario's new progress report, by not giving marks, should focus more on how students have settled into the routine and learned the requirements of school.

But some researchers also suggest that report cards should do a better job of communicating social skills and emotions: Many parents want know not just about math scores, but whether their children are well-adjusted and happy.

In Denmark, for instance, students and parents complete an annual survey, with specific questions about how the students feel in school and what they need and want from teachers. Their answers are incorporated into report cards. "That sends a really strong message to the public that we care about students' social and emotional well-being, because that's contributing to their [school performance]" says Eunice Jang, a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto.

Probably the main complaint about report cards is the language, a problem highlighted by Canada's ever-growing number of immigrants, who may arrive with English that does not include a grasp of the term "numeracy" or a relative understanding of what it means to "meet expectations."

As Manitoba Education Minister Nancy Allan points out, "If you've just come to Canada from another country [how do you know]what are our country's expectations?" She has promised that the province's new report card "will be parent-friendly and written in plain language."

Even with these rounds of changes, it's unlikely that the tinkering is done. Grading makes for lively debate everywhere. In Texas, a judge ruled in the summer in favour of teachers who argued that a policy banning marks below 50 per cent on report cards violated their academic freedom. Other U.S. school districts have got rid of the D letter grade, saying that if students can't score a C, they should receive a failing grade. Denmark has only recently starting giving grades to students in Grade 7 and below, a response, partly, to middling scores on international rankings

Changes to report cards in Canada can be expected to include an attempt to clarify grades - with more provinces leaning toward a return to old-fashioned percentages for middle and high school, which allows students to see improvements more clearly than letter grades. "There's nothing wrong with grades being competitive," Mr. Zwaagstra says. "Life is competitive."

So, back in Red Deer, Mr. Bower will diligently fill out his report cards, with grades. But he added his advice for parents: Do not get distracted by them. "Don't let grades rob you and your child of awesome conversations about learning."

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