There are some things in society we do because it’s what has always been done, even though they may not be relevant anymore. Debutante Balls, pen pals, cigarette lighters in cars, tape cassettes on sale anywhere, removing the garter at a wedding (in fact, a lot of things we do at weddings). The list goes on, and I firmly believe that school reports fall into this category.
For years kids would dread the day when their report card came home in the mail. I myself remember waiting nervously while my mother read over, page by page, my semester reports each June and December. I was often relieved that the news was relatively good, apart from the odd comment about lacking initiative and not listening carefully enough.
For a long time, school reports have provided parents and students with a useful summary of progress. Many students would keep them for future job interviews, while parents would store them away in a box for nostalgic purposes – to bring out in later years to embarrass their son/daughter.
Yet with the welcome arrival of the internet, email, SMS and school portals entrenching themselves throughout our education system, we really must ask whether writing end of semester reports is a beneficial utilisation of teachers’ time. I mean, really, what’s the point in marking work throughout the semester and keeping it so it can be rewritten, double handled and repackaged into jargon filled nonsense that few people can understand, let alone want to read?
Here’s the reasons why school reports, these days, fail:
1. The excessive jargon
Educational practitioners engage in the drafting, developing, editing and evaluation of student performance so as to communicate diagnostic and summative assessment to relevant stakeholders…
As an English teacher, I understand the concept of ‘target audience’. We are expected to write the most bland, technical reports to an audience of thousands with varying demographics and education levels. I feel guilty when I have to write to a parent that Johnny can ‘analyse and evaluate the use of nominalisation in a wide range of multimodal texts and he can effectively utilise his understanding to construct his own texts.’
No wonder many parents don’t bother reading reports these days.
2. The emphasis on not personalising reports
We are told as teachers to treat learners as individuals; to respect their autonomy and their own personal worth. Yet any reading of a school report comment database (yes, report comment database) would have you believing that you are assessing the performance of a robot.
You see, reports are supposed to remain objective these days. So writing home to mum and dad informing them that Child X has barely lifted a finger in class can sometimes come out looking like this:
Child X attends class on a consistent basis. He is aware that texts have different purposes and audiences and he has demonstrated general understanding of fiction and non-fiction texts. Child X can respond to basic questions that require comprehension of a short fictional text and he can verbally explain an author’s key message.
You could excuse a parent for thinking that their child has performed quite productively this semester. Yet the subtext is this:
Child X attends class daily yet he does very little work. Since he was in the class, between talking he knew that we were studying purpose and target audience yet he completed minimal work on the texts provided. Due to his lack of focus, he only managed to complete a couple of questions during class, and he rarely finished the work that was set. He was often kept in at lunchtime to make up for lost learning time, and during discussions with the teacher he demonstrated minimal understanding of the content.
Clearly the second report paints a more accurate picture of what this child has done (or not done) in the classroom. It might be blunt, but I’d bet any parent would gain more suitable information from a ‘personalised’ report than a jargon filled sugar coat.
3. The fact that it’s double handling
Teachers are told that a parent should have prior warning before a bad report is sent home. If a child is not performing for whatever reason, the parent should, rightly, be informed during the semester. So this begs the question: if the expectation is that the parent already knows about their child’s performance, then what is the point of writing a detailed report?
The time has already been taken to send the letters, email, call home etc. All of these methods would have hopefully allowed for early intervention since the impact would be immediate. A report at the end of a semester is removed and little action can be taken to remedy the situation after the fact.
4. New technology has made them obsolete
Most schools now use a portal or text messaging system that allows for constant communication with parents. Teachers can post assignments and corrections on the portal for students to access and for parents to look at. These platforms also allow for parents to view feedback online. It is so much more efficient for a parent to log on and review the assessment of their child’s work immediately rather than the teacher keeping all records through the semester only to rework that very feedback into a report.
It makes so much sense:
Scenario one: Week 6 of term one – child has performed poorly on their history assignment – parent logs onto the portal and reads the teacher feedback. The parent questions the student and contacts the teacher and early intervention has been made. The student is immediately accountable.
Scenario two: The child has performed poorly on their history assignment. The teacher keeps the records filed and revisits them at the end of the semester to write the report. The parent reads the end of semester report, and assuming that they understood the subtext of the jargon, they’re disappointed their child has not performed too well yet there’s little that can be done now since the semester is over.
Of course, scenario two could work slightly better if the teacher has contacted home to speak to the parent, but once again this can only lead us to question the purpose of end of semester reports since the parent should already know how their child is performing.
Even if a school does not use a portal system, other methods such as text message and email are so much more efficient and immediate than the after-the-fact end of semester report.
5. Dispensing with reports does not mean the child won’t have a neat record of achievement at the end
Some might say that it’s useful for a student to be provided with an overall summary of their performance. This can still be achieved online. If all their feedback and assessment data is stored digitally in the one place, rather than on a sheet of paper that could be lost, isn’t this more reliable?
6. There is little research that links semester reports to improved student learning
It makes sense that everything teachers do should be grounded in the knowledge that it will improve student outcomes. Yet strangely, teachers spend hours upon hours working on reports when there is minimal research to suggest that they will improve student achievement. Talk about inefficiency!
7. It’s time to move into the 24/7 information world
Reports are an old fashioned thing of the past. In the old days of typewriters, letterheads and the post, they had their place. These days we have substitutes that are timely, efficient, and allow for immediate action. No one is suggesting that dispending with reports will absolve teachers from communicating with parents. Quite the opposite. It’s about a change in practice to ensure that the education system operates like the rest of 21st century.