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Fall report cards in Ontario just got a makeover - progress is in, letter grades are out and teachers are being invited to compose their own comments.

The makeover is the culmination of a pilot project launched by the Ministry of Education two years ago that saw 19 different report designs tested at a handful of school boards across the province.

Templates of the new report cards were sent to Ontario school boards on Monday, and will be coming home with children in the fall of 2010.

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They come with instructions that teachers should be allowed to choose between composing their own comments or using prefabricated ones from pull-down menus. In the past, canned comments have drawn the ire of parents because they're impersonal and often laden with technical jargon.

"Teachers like using their own comments," said Toronto District School Board trustee Howard Goodman, who recently shepherded an effort at his board to simplify report comments and make them more meaningful to parents.

"It looks like with the new templates the teachers have more opportunity to continue the practice of personalized comments but on a larger scale, which I think is very important," said Karen McDonald, co-chair of the Peel District School Board's Parent Involvement Committee. "It has been a common concern of parents that the pull-down menu comments didn't get across anything about their child."

Perhaps the biggest change is that the new fall report card is now called a progress report card, and it does away with letter grades. Instead students will be rated as "progressing with difficulty," "progressing well" or "progressing very well."

"Parents, teachers and the ministry all agreed that there might be a better way to report a student's progress after those first few weeks of school," said Minister of Education Leona Dombrowsky.

A common parent complaint was that there was little formal testing in the first weeks of the school year, and letter grades often didn't provide a complete or accurate depiction of how their child was adapting to the classroom.

"The new fall progress report card emphasizes a student's development and provides feedback to a parent on whether their child is progressing well or if they are having difficulty," said Ms. Dombrowsky. "It will also include teacher comments about a student's learning that are personalized, clear and meaningful."

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Early parent reaction to the new templates was positive.

Murielle Boudreau of the Greater Toronto Catholic Parent Network said the new template did a better job of explaining learning skills and work habit categories.

"It is easier to read, and to many parents, they will have a better idea of the level of work being done by students," she said in an e-mail to The Globe and Mail.

Parents like Ms. Boudreau welcomed the option for teachers to compose their own comments, but it remains to be seen whether teachers will take advantage of it.

"Teachers want the list of comments," said Doug Jolliffe, president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.

He said that choice was always good, but that when completing dozens of report cards, list comments are often helpful.

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