Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Beyond Grades: How is My Child Doing?

Part 3 in a series on grading and feedback

In previous posts in this series on grading, I have argued first that grades fail to motivate genuine learning and second, that they provide only vague unhelpful feedback to students. But what about parents? Many teachers say that they must give grades because parents demand them. It is true that most parents view grades as useful feedback, primarily, I believe, because we teachers have sold grades as effective feedback for 150 years. Parents want an answer to the question, "How is my child doing?" For most parents, grades seem to provide the answer to that question.

But what if we showed parents that that question is only poorly answered by a letter or number grade and that we can provide them with much richer information? What if we could provide parents with the answer to that question and at the same time let them know what we can do together to help the child achieve even more? The transition might be bumpy, but ultimately, I think parents will see that a different approach to answering the "How is my child doing?" question will be much more rewarding.

First, let's understand that the question, "How is my child doing?" is a complex one. Parents want to know how their child is doing academically, but they also want to know that their child's social and emotional needs are being met. Educators have long recognized that a grade on a report card can't provide all this information, so we have typically been given a checklist of behaviors to tick off like "Works well with others" and "Participates in class discussions." Still grades and checklists or written comments carry a fuzzy picture of a child's progress. We would do better to answer a few questions that are suggested by the this complex, "How is my child doing?"

In a skill based subject like reading, what are the questions we want to answer for parents? I would suggest the following.

  • Is my child reading at, above or below expected reading level for grade and age?
  • Does my child enjoy reading and read for increasing lengths of time?
  • Does my child read with adequate fluency (decoding, expression, rate) for age and grade level?
  • Does my child understand what is read at an adequate level for age and grade?
  • What strengths does my child exhibit in reading?
  • What challenges does my child have in reading?
  • What are you doing in school to help improve my child's reading?
  • What can I do at home to help improve my child's reading?
I would discourage sharing with parents a specific level of reading or a specific grade level score in reading. This is information for the professional and not necessary for the parent. At, above or below level seems adequate for parent information.

In content based subjects the questions to be answered change a bit, but the goal of actionable feedback stays the same. Let's take a social studies example.
  • Did my child demonstrate a knowledge of the social studies content in the curriculum?
  • To what extent has my child shown the ability to think and work like a social scientist?
  • To what extent has my child shown the ability to read and comprehend social studies materials?
  • To what extent has my child shown the ability to conduct research in the social sciences?
  • Is my child developing an adequate social science vocabulary?
  • What is being done in school to help my child improve performance in social sciences?
  • What can I do at home to help my child improve performance in the social sciences?
At first glance this may seem like a lot of information for the teacher to gather, but on closer inspection I believe that the answers to these questions are readily available to any teacher who has been observing the children in the class over several weeks. The answers to these questions come from running records, student in class work, anecdotal records of students performance taken by the teacher as students are engaged in a variety of activities, as well as from traditional tests and quizzes. The information is richer and more informative than any single grade or standardized test score could provide a parent. This approach also argues for the primacy of the teacher as being in the best position to assess a child's abilities.

It may appear that reporting like this is best suited to a parent teacher conference, which typically happens once or twice a year in school. While a regular conference might be the best way to deliver this information. other methods could be just as effective. One alternative is the narrative report card, where answers to questions such as those above are shared with parents in a narrative format. Teachers are provided with a report card template with question prompts to respond to in a narrative form. This approach would be time consuming, but perhaps less so than having 4 conferences a year. Another possibility is using technology, like Skype or Facetime, to make conferring more convenient for teacher and parent. Ultimately, technology may replace the need for periodic reporting out, with details of student performance available to (older) students and their parents as soon as teachers enter the information on a school database dedicated to the purpose and password protected.

Whatever the method of reporting, I think we need to admit that grades are a woefully inadequate form of feedback that actually does damage to the true motivations for learning. If we start from tat proposition, than problems related to changing the system become less daunting.

I am sure that my readers who teach middle and high school are saying to themselves that this may be fine for elementary teachers who have 25 students, but how can I do this when I have 125+ students?Well, we first need to remember that while elementary teachers have fewer students they are reporting on more subjects, so any class of 25 in elementary school with 5 subjects to report on is more or less equal to a secondary class of 125 with one subject. There are issues with grade reporting in the secondary schools that are different, however, and I will deal with them in a future post in this series.

To read about a procedure that two school districts used to do away with grades in elementary schools click here.