Reflections on Writing my First Elementary School Report Cards

Two weeks ago I was placed in a grade 4 class in at Bear Creek Elementary school in Surrey, B.C..  The classroom teacher was unexpectedly absent and will be until the end of the year.   As she is on an official leave of absence, the teacher is not able to write reports for the students she’s taught since September… leaving writing the report cards (with her assessment data and anecdotal comments, plus my observations) to me.  Having previously only completed report cards at the high school level I looked at this ‘gift’ as a timely learning opportunity.

Next year I am taking on two new roles.  I will be teaching a grade 5/6 class in addition to being Vice Principal at Berkshire Park Elementary School.  As such, I will be responsible for writing report cards for my students.  As you know, report cards in elementary schools are quite different to the ones I was used to as a high school teacher.  In Surrey we are looking at other ways to report student progress or communicate student learning.  I know the report card template I used this year is nearing the end of its existence, but I wanted to take some time and reflect on the process and offer an opportunity for conversation with many of you that have been writing report cards like these for years.

Here’s some things I noticed:

I didn’t feel great about assigning letter grades to students in grade 4.  I realize that soon teachers won’t have the option to assign letter grades to students at this age.   Having now done so, my support and advocacy for assessment practices that support a growth mindset and don’t label students in to grade categories is further solidified.  I am also thinking that whatever we move to also can’t be just another way to give letter grades (ie. having a student fully meeting expectations = B, and so on).  Students compare their grades with each other, they decide if they are ‘good’ at something based on them, and they often use them to define their ‘success’ as students and as humans.  I am not interested in opening the ‘grade debate’ with this post but I cannot support reporting processes that leave some students demoralized and feeling ‘dumb’ or ‘stupid.’

I liked that learning outcomes were included in the report.  We all know that clear learning intentions are important for students and teachers when designing and participating in learning activities.  I liked that I could communicate to parents what it was that we were covering and what I was reporting on.  I found the Math and Social Studies outcomes most helpful… hmmm… come to think of it I, found the ‘content’ PLOs the most helpful.  The PLOs around Language Arts (which are excellent and I use as foundational to my planning) were less easy to choose and there were so many to choose from.  Bottom line… A ‘report card’ needs to report on learning and I was glad that the elementary report card allowed me to do that in a way that I wasn’t able to as a high school teacher.

The learning outcomes that I had to choose from will be difficult for some parents to understand. As teachers we use, and understand, educational jargon.  We throw around terms like, ‘grade level‘ and assume that every one else knows what we mean.  What are grade appropriate expectations or what does it mean to edit text for conventions?  (I continually question why we group students based on the year they arrived in the world and expect all of them to be at the same ‘level’ in the same year – anyway).  Many of the students at the school come from homes where English isn’t the primary language spoken.  It occurs to me that a report card needs to be read and understood by the intended audience.  Most parents aren’t well versed in the language we use to describe learning; some struggle with the basics of the English language.  How can we write a report card that accurately assesses student progress and learning, while at the same time is easily read and understood by our students’ parents / guardians?

Ranking student progress on a four point scale and giving a letter grade was confusing and lacking in accuracy.  The four point scale on this report card had 4 levels.  However the language used was not the same as the language I was familiar with (used on the BC Ministry of Education Performance Standards).  They were:

Not Yet Meeting Expectations
Approaching Expectations
Meeting Expectations
Exceeding Expectations.

To me Not Yet and Approaching are basically the same thing; if we are approaching something aren’t we not yet there?  Now because two levels of the scale were taken up with the same idea, I felt that Meeting Expectations had to cover everything from a C- to a B.  There seemed to be no way to make a student’s actual performance level clear other than with the letter grade.  At that point why not just give a letter grade and list the learning outcomes covered?  In this case the letter grades did a better job of describing varying levels of performance.

Having the opportunity to write a short paragraph about each student might be seen as overwhelming by some, but I welcomed the opportunity for a place to write personalized anecdotal comments about each student.  Even after working with these students for only 2 weeks I can see their strengths and stretches as learners.  I have gotten to know their personalities and how they approach school and learning.  I felt that the opportunity to write about each student individually was the most authentic piece of the whole report card.  I recognize it is a significant amount of work, but somehow, what ever way we decide to use to communicate student learning in the future, it needs to include a place for personalized commentary on student learning progress and their social interactions.  I know for high school teachers this seems impossible, but somehow we need to communicate authentically to parents of high school students as well.  Comments out of a comment bank are woefully inadequate.

So… being new to elementary reporting, and starting as grade 5/6 teacher next year, I welcome your ideas and comments to my observations, wonderings and reflections on reporting in elementary schools.  What have you noticed?  What do you like and what are wishing could be different?  This is top of mind for all teachers right now as we wind down and have the end of June in our sights.  Your comments are much appreciated.

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