It's report card season in Canadian schools, and students aren't the only ones bracing for disappointment.
Parents' most anticipated document of the school year – eight months of sweat and homework in the making – is supposed to provide a front-line assessment of their child's progress. But how do they decipher comments that the student "responds accurately to few oral texts with prompting" or "performs contrasting music that makes use of elements of music learned in this grade?"
After pages of reading on fluencies, outcomes and standards, parents often feel flummoxed – no matter how closely they study the accompanying legends and indexes.
They yearn for information on how to help their children get ahead, but report cards rarely deliver.
"We get three report cards home a year with very little concrete information," said Laura Fowlie, a mother of three daughters in grades 7, 10 and 12 in Burlington, Ont.
"I tend to read them and then not know what they mean because the language is not specific enough. They're written in teacher-ese."
Ms. Fowlie points to an end-of-year report card that her oldest daughter, Rachel, received in middle school. The teacher suggested that Rachel "work on life skills" over the summer break.
"What does that mean? I'd just assumed that life taught you life skills. We were hoping for more specific information."
But building a better report card is easier said than done, with some educators opting for a simpler presentation while others add new layers of information.
Over the past two decades, progress reports have become increasingly complex, breaking down learning outcomes beyond a simple letter grade or percentage. Critics say they're inundated with pedagogical jargon or formulaic feedback they can't understand.
Terms such as "assessment evidence" and "learner outcomes" described in terms of "sometimes," "often" and "always," are recognizable as English but still don't convey much. Combined with the fact that teachers often select from a pulldown menu of comments that refer to a child as "the student," report cards can feel completely disconnected from the kid who brings them home.
Teachers often fall back on prefabricated comments when they're pressed for time, said Ken O'Connor, an education consultant and assessment expert. "I think they do it sometimes because they lack confidence in their own ability to write a good report card."
It can take 30 minutes to write a report card well and some teachers have as many as 30 students. Teachers are rarely given enough time to write them and so rely on canned comments, he said.
Standardization is seen as an antidote. Manitoba is joining other provinces such as Ontario and Nova Scotia in introducing standard provincewide report card templates.
Individual school districts such as the South East Cornerstone Public School Division in Weyburn, Sask., have focused their efforts on providing as much information as possible. That district introduced a new report card template this year that can be as many as eight pages long, including all the graphs and legends.
Grade 5 Arts, for example, is divided into 13 learning outcomes that are reviewed individually four times throughout the school year. The result is that by the end of the school year, one student will have a checkerboard of 52 colour-coded marks mapping out their progress in art class.
"We want to keep it as transparent as possible and that's as transparent as you can get," said Susan Nedelcove-Anderson, a curriculum co-ordinator for the district.
She said reaction from parents has been mixed, and that the district is working with teachers to help teach parents to adjust.
"There are some parents who are really excited about the amount of information they get about their child, and others who have questions," she said.
Branksome Hall, an all-girls private school in Toronto, breaks down Grade 6 mathematics into 12 learning outcomes. These include separate marks for how well a student solves problems with multiplcation or division, and another for understanding the relationship between fractions and decimals.
Sarah Craig, head of Branksome's junior school, said parents are better equipped to help their children when they know exactly how they're struggling.
"They have fewer questions because they have more specifics in the [report card] feedback," she said.
While more information is the trend, parents in Manitoba have asked for something a little more concise.
In 2010, when Manitoba Education announced that they were developing a more "parent friendly" provincewide template, some raised concerns that eight pages were too many.
"For some [parents] all that information would be appreciated, but for most that's probably overkill," said Naomi Kruse, executive director of the Manitoba Association of Parent Councils, who was invovled in the province's parent consultations.
In the end, the province settled on a plan where subjects are broken down into three or four subcategories. At the high-school level, the new template will include a chart that shows the completion of requirements for graduation. The template was piloted this school year and will become mandatory in the fall of 2013.
It's not just more information that's needed, parents say, but the right information.