As I sat in a session on progress monitoring at the 2010 ASCD Annual Conference, I started to wonder about a few new things in terms of report cards. The presenters were describing ways in which they used three different forms of data about students. One was the traditional form of scores on papers. The others are traditional in the sense that they represent data that is readily available in the classroom, it’s just rarely used for reporting: observations of and conversations with students. In my various bits of work with teachers and grading, these forms of data collection and use are the ones that make teachers uncomfortable because they rely completely on professional judgment. However, as the presenters at the session were quick to point out, when we visit a doctor, observation and conversation is the most common form of data gathering to make conclusions about our health. Certainly lab tests and vital stats inform the opinions, but we don’t think twice about physicians being unprofessional because they rely on their eyes and ears to reach a summary. Such forms should be no less valid in the classroom. I agree with this and think the key for most teachers is in finding and using data collection tools (running records or charts, for example) that are simple and meaningful to use.
But this brought me to another thought about report cards: Are letter grades “dumbed down” versions of reporting? Teachers have a rich opportunity in the classroom to gather all different forms of data---which we then expect to be crunched into a single representation. I’m not sure that even a standards-based report card would solve this, because summary progress on each target is still reduced into a symbol for that item. Do we use a single letter or number for a class on a report card because we don’t think families need or would use more meaningful information? Is the symbol good enough to represent all of the learning and evidence?
The presenters did not have to wrestle with this in their school. On the report cards, they were expected to report on three aspects: what were the learning targets for the grading period, a description of student progress toward those targets, and the plan for upcoming improvement/extension for the student. Because of the qualitative data collected throughout the reporting period, the end of term descriptions were a snap to write. I am sure this idea sends a shiver down the back of many a secondary teacher---but remember that these presenters were elementary teachers having to track and write summaries for each of 30 students in every subject (reading, math, writing, science, social studies…). The number of boxes to fill in is very similar.
I have to wonder how other stakeholders (e.g. college admissions) would view this sort of reporting. If the Carnegie unit goes away at some point (and it should in a standards-based system), what will colleges do with “transcripts” that are full descriptions of student strengths and needs as opposed to a simple list? Can they handle the truth?
Doing away with grades is not a new idea. I can think of plenty of people I’ve chatted with over the last few years who have told me about schooling where grades aren’t used and things move along just fine. I do think that an emphasis on qualitative data and more descriptive communications at secondary would shake a lot of trees. Maybe it’s time we did.