November 16th, 2011
10:53 AM ET

Is it time to redesign the report card?

Courtesy Marilyn MargonEditor’s Note: Sam Chaltain  is a DC-based writer and education advocate. He can be found on Twitter at @samchaltain

By Sam Chaltain, Special to CNN

This week, many parents and guardians of students across the country will receive their first report cards of the 2011-2012 school year. For some, the occasion will provide welcome confirmation of a young person’s superior effort. Others will open their mail to find an uncomfortable wake up call. Yet for too many families, the report cards will offer little more than confusion – about how their child is actually behaving, what he or she has actually learned, and whether any meaningful progress has actually been made. “I have a master’s degree in education,” said Devon Bartlett, a parent whose children are in first and fourth grade, “and even I can’t make sense of what my child’s report card is trying to tell me. Clearly, we can do better.”

Given how uninformed so many parents feel, and considering how differently the nation’s 100,000 plus schools choose to track student growth, is it time to give the school report card an extreme makeover, and dress it up for the 21st century?

Zakiya Reid, principal of Bancroft Elementary School in Washington, D.C., certainly thinks so – although she’s mandated to use the same report card as all other D.C. public schools. “We’re doing a lot better here than we were before,” she offered, “and all of our feedback is presented in terms of the primary standards we want the children to reach. At the same time, we’re still learning as a community of educators how to do standards-based grading, so I know the way we present information on the new report card is not clear to all of our teachers. And if it isn’t clear to the teachers, it’s safe to say it isn’t going to be clear to our students and parents. So we still have some important work to do.”

A few miles away, at a first-year DC charter school called Mundo Verde, principal Dahlia Aguilar has a different problem: designing her school’s inaugural report card from scratch. “The challenge is finding the right balance of information without overwhelming parents,” she mused, while a five-year-old boy in her office built an intricate Lego castle at her feet. “But the joy of our situation is realizing we can rethink all of the things about report cards I’d always thought were set in stone – like including single letter grades and excluding multiple examples of actual student work. It’s a lot of work the first time through, but we’re loving the challenge.”

Recently, a lot of other people besides Dahlia – and both within and without K-12 education circles – accepted the same challenge courtesy of GOOD Magazine’s Redesign the Report Card  competition. “We wanted to challenge our readers to be visually appealing, informative and inspirational, and to give the right amount of context to student learning,” explains GOOD’s education editor, Liz Dwyer.

The contest’s winner, Polly D’Avignon, designed a report card she called Education Engaged. “One vital aspect of student educational success is an active, engaged, and enthused relationship between students, parents, and teachers,” she explained. “So I envisioned an online, interactive report card that utilizes social media and data visualization to encourage students and parents to interact with educators in a dynamic, comfortable environment. A simple number or letter grade once every quarter or six weeks doesn't sufficiently equip parents to play an active role in their children's education.” (See Polly’s design for yourself here.)

As it turns out, Polly’s instinctive feel for design is reinforced by some of the leading research in the field. As Educational Leadership editor Marge Scherer explains in a recent issue dedicated to exploring grades in depth, “Before a school attempts to make changes to report cards, it must consider the purposes that the grades will serve.” In other words, is a grade meant to reflect what students learn, what they earn, or both? And is there any consistency across classrooms, or are teachers essentially deciding for themselves what their grades are meant to reflect?

Veteran New Hampshire educator Kim Carter, whose Q.E.D. Foundation helps schools nationwide design more effective assessment systems, has been wrestling with these questions for a long time. “Although almost all of us grew up in schools that relied on the single-letter-grade-style of reporting, we’ve known for decades that one letter tells you virtually nothing about what has actually been learned over any period of time, be it one week, one school quarter or one school year.

“In the best schools of today – and, hopefully, in all of our schools of the future – student assessment of, for, and as learning should be the main course of teaching, instead of the afterthought. It needs to take center stage in the process of what it means to guide any individual along a path of growth, and replace the antiquated definition of teaching as merely the filling up of empty vessels.

“We know a lot more than we used to about how people learn,” Carter concluded. “Isn’t it time we ensured that every school, and every school report card, reflected that wisdom, and figured out how to effectively communicate it to students and parents?”

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soundoff (10 Responses)
  1. Chuck Fellows

    Report Cards in any form are education's version of the business world's performance review process. Both suffer disadvantages due to their link to time, the periodic review. Time gaps between a focus on assessment lead to distorted views of reality.

    Assessment of any kind must be a two way process with events recorded (noted, written down, put in some form to be reviewed at "Report Card Time") at the time of their occurrence with some way of identifying the context.

    Outside of the school environment and before technology arrived this was done with a pencil, erasure, piece of paper and fifteen minutes a day of focus time. When the time came for a "report" (hopefully focused on continual improvement) a reference, that had been continually seen and reviewed by the reporting recipient, was available to create a meaningful assessment.

    With the technology we have today we should be capable of building a comprehensive body of knowledge about individual performance on a real time basis. The award winning report card is a step in that direction.

    We must end the tyranny of time boundedness and focus on the continual real time improvement of performance. And it must be interactively done with, not to, the student and the primary caregiver.

    Education must become about learning that grows from within the individual.

    November 19, 2011 at 8:03 am |
  2. Dave Greene

    A report card only reports. We need to redesign curriculum to measure skills that appeared on report cards 50+ years ago when I was in elementary school. However it needs to be done across the board.

    The problem with letter or number grades is that they really don't tell anyone anything about the student. Full narrative evaluations as the WISE program does with High School Seniors ( or The Scarsdale Alternative School ( build these types of authentic assessments as an integral part of their programs. Check them out and see how real reporting works.

    November 17, 2011 at 3:18 pm |
    • Sam Chaltain

      Thanks Dave. No doubt the report card is merely a reflection of larger shifts that need to happen, like curricula. What's useful about looking at report cards, though - like the ones you share - is that they serve as a clear reflection of how aligned (or misaligned) schools are around what they value and how those values guide their work with kids. And most importantly they're documents that are literally meant to serve as the communications bridge between educators and parents. In any case, thanks for taking the time to read and respond!

      November 17, 2011 at 3:29 pm |
  3. scoo

    Make 4 different report cards.
    You can't grade everyone on RRR.
    Include a parental score card section on the kids scorecard too.
    Father would have these options
    Yes/ no
    Jail yes/ no
    Convictions qty guilty qty innocent
    Years behind bars-
    Drug addictions?
    Get reality into the scorecard. Parents count alot.

    November 17, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  4. mexgirl

    I so agree and think it should say more about the progress of a child in more than 4 letters.

    November 17, 2011 at 3:49 am |
  5. mexgirl

    Texman u r such an ignorant rascist. Talk about the issue not stupidness.

    November 17, 2011 at 3:47 am |
  6. ytuque

    How much tax money is being wasted on this nonsense? A letter grade has a meaning such as 'C' for satisfactory. A letter grade and a well written course description is all that is required for me to understand what my kid has or hasn't learned.

    From the Finnish school system which is the best in the 1st world, having teachers who are required to hold a graduate degree in their subject is superior to the US practice of having all these education majors. Do you think in Finland, they have are spending money trying to redesign student report cards, or do they have more important matter to work on?

    November 16, 2011 at 8:20 pm |
  7. TexMan

    There should be a part of the report card that reports – "Speaks English" Yes or No

    Parents Illegal aliens – Yes or No

    November 16, 2011 at 6:26 pm |