Rethinking Report Cards 1

Grade-based report cards are a “regularity of schooling”. Regularities of schooling are those features of school life whose utility we rarely question, such as age-based grade levels, starting school in September and ending in June, and assigning students grades based upon the quality of their work (Sarason). Regularities of schooling result from teachers being far too busy to stop and reflect on the advantages and disadvantages of the daily practices they inherit from the veteran teachers they replace and way too busy to envision promising alternatives.

The question, “Why are we doing this, this way?” is rarely asked, nor the natural follow up, “Is there a better way?” The unspoken answer, “Because it’s always been done this way.”

Similar limits of time result in parallel regularities of consumerism, church life, health care, marriage, and, I suspect, every sector of life and the economy. On those rare occasions when we have spare time to thoughtfully evaluate the usefulness of our personal and work life activities, we tend to fill the quiet empty spaces with television, internet surfing, and related noise/activity.

We aren’t disciplined enough to stop, reflect, envision, and thoughtfully implement promising alternatives to the regularities of our personal and work lives.

Why have grade-based report cards stood the test of time with hardly any variation despite radical changes in the world in which we live? What purposes do grade-based report cards serve? If they were to be radically redesigned, how might teaching and learning be revitalized? What form will the pushback against updated alternative report cards likely take? I begin answering these questions tomorrow.

3 thoughts on “Rethinking Report Cards 1

    • Caveat. My proposal won’t provide much, if any help, to one teacher thinking about how to best update his/her grading system because it would require entire districts, schools, and groups of teachers to adopt the wholesale changes. I’m thinking more about the overall design of the report card than I am how any individual teacher grades students within his/her class. You and I are obligated by our “schools’ rules” to assign letter grades; consequently, we have limits on our ability to think and act differently. Of course there are some alternative and independent schools (including Evergreen College) implementing innovative alternatives to the traditional grade-based report card, but they are a distinct minority. Additional thought. Critics of my idea will argue that grades provide the necessary motivation for otherwise disinterested teens. But again, students are rarely engaged or lost in content, instead they’re skilled at figuring out “how to get the ‘A'”. Getting good grades often becomes a game and many of the most “successful” students are in fact the ones best at gaming the system. We need to motivate students by updating/strengthening curriculua, updating/improving teaching methods, and by more persuasively articulating the humanitarian and not just utilitarian purposes of schooling. Additional additional thought. My first year college students are extremely grade conscious. They’ve been socialized to get good grades and their identities are as “A” and in worse case scenario, “B” people. I challenge them to fast forward ten years when they’re enjoying a dinner party with friends sometime between ages 28-32. I explain that ten years down the road, no one asks or really cares what your SAT score was, what your g.p.a. was, whether you graduated with honors. They do care about how you treat your significant other, how you treat your infant child or children, whether you have a social conscious, whether you have a sense of humor, how well you listen, and the ways in which you contribute to the group’s greater good.

  1. I was semi-joking, but only semi. Each year as a teacher I try to think how do I really assess what the kids know and transfer this feedback to them in a meaningful way. As a parent, an not without some frustration, I wonder how many teachers come up with very random ways of assessment. I do think that we throw out the elementary school report card much too early for the bare-bones high school model. Here is an idea: get rid of computerized final report cards and have a period of time where students meet each teacher with a form and the assessment is done in person and with meaningful written feedback. At least the conversation could begin….

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