The Calgary Board of Education has proposed significant changes to report cards. The board will begin consultations to remove grades from report cards for children between kindergarten and Grade 9 and to also drop personalized comments. We parents have a strong stake in this issue, since we expect that report cards are a tool to communicate to parents how their child is performing.
Some parents are reasonably concerned that the move to qualitative grades at the junior high school level will dilute their meaning. The CBE has proposed, "exemplary", "evident", "emerging", "needs support" and "insufficient evidence" as new measures of learning outcomes. These are broad categories. But do we really need more detailed measures? If Sally gets an 85 and John gets an 82 in Grade 7 math does that tell us much about the differences in their capabilities? Likely not. Do we need to compare them at this granular a level? Again, likely not.
Recent research indicates surprising levels of anxiety among school children in Alberta. Perhaps this is not helped by these comparisons and broader grade categories would create less pressure. That would be good for our children. Focus should be on learning not competition for grades.
Whatever wording is chosen to replace the grades currently given, what matters is that the new feedback is backed by a solid and clear explanation of what each category means. The proposed rubric appears to do that. In any case, a significant communications effort will be necessary to explain the new system to parents.
And so, of greater concern, are moves to eliminate comments from report cards and reduce the number of report cards to two a year. These are largely driven by pressure to reduce teacher workloads.
More often than not, comments are the most valuable part of the report card. They tell us what our child's special talents, interests and aptitudes are; what issues might need work; and let us know if our child's teacher has an understanding of them. Usually, the comments, not the grades, spur the discussion in parent teacher conferences.
Dropping to two report cards per year – as the board is also proposing – will cause problems. Even in elementary school, there are some subjects that do not start until the second term. The first reporting period could fall either before those second term subjects started or shortly after they had begun. Therefore, little meaningful feedback could be provided on those courses prior to the end of term report card – at which time no action could be taken.
Report cards reveal issues. Often, the onus for resolving these problems falls upon the parents, as it should. If a first report card reveals an area, such as reading, that needs extra help at home, a second reporting period within the school year provides an opportunity to evaluate how any steps taken to improve on problems are working. Without that, parents will have no further chances for course correction within that school year.
The Calgary Board is stating that there will more communication between teachers and parents on a real-time basis. When an issue occurs, the teacher would inform the parent right away instead of waiting for the next report card.
Unfortunately, at the present time we have no information on how this process would work. In theory it sounds great. However, there is currently no obvious mechanism for on-going communication between teachers and parents. Teachers seem to be one of the few professions, like doctors, whose e-mail addresses aren't readily available. Report card preparation provides deadlines that need to be met. In a teacher's busy day, it is easy to see how reaching out to parents could fall by the wayside.
If the CBE could successfully set up processes that truly enabled effective real-time communications between teachers and parents that would be exemplary. However, at the current time, I can only grade the proposed new report cards polices as emerging. They need more work, but there is still time for improvement.
Jeff Bowes is President of the Calgary Association of Parents and School Councils.