Archive for the ‘Student Reports’ Category

Student report cards are a critical point of contact with parents and that’s why they attract more critical scrutiny than other aspects of K-12 education.  Most parents seek clear, intelligible, individualized, regular student progress reports with understandable grades, while student assessment consultants come up with wave-after-wave of changes modeling the latest proposed innovation in assessment practice.  That explains, in many ways, why the subterranean issue never seems to disappear.

Every five years or so, school authorities from Canadian province to province attempt to revamp their student report cards, usually aimed at challenging the prevailing orthodoxy. Introducing outcomes-based student assessment in the 1990s produced a new impenetrable language accompanied by “competencies” and hundreds of “micro-outcomes.”  Repeated attempts were made to replace letter grades in elementary schools and percentage marks in high schools with outcomes-based reporting and newly-constructed scales of development in learning. That initial wave produced what have become standardized, digitally-generated provincial or school district report templates.

Most top-down report card modernization plans end up imposing heavier reporting loads on teachers and leaving most parents baffled. Six years ago, Nova Scotia parent Marshall Hamilton spoke for perhaps hundreds of thousands of parents: “I don’t see my child in the comments.”  “The language doesn’t really give the parent or the child any idea of critical feedback,” he explained to CBC News. ” I can probably figure out more about what the curriculum is meant to do than to understand my daughter’s performance in that current curriculum.”

Student report cards in Canadian school systems are, in theory, intended to provide ‘meaningful information” to parents and guardians on “how their child is progressing in school.” Since that wave of parent criticism six years ago, Nova Scotia’s student reports have become far clearer and more intelligible with actual marks from Grade 7 to 12 , but there are still a few missing pieces.

Legitimate concerns about teachers’ classroom conditions and workloads sometimes prompt initiatives to “streamline” reporting that have unintended consequences.  Surveying his daughter’s November 2018 Grade 6 Nova Scotia report, former teacher Kristopher Snarby was surprised to see that it provided no feedback on subject courses representing over half her weekly schedule. Report cards from Grades P to 6, Snarby discovered, only contained marks and comments on Language Arts and Mathematics, providing no marks, comments or attendance for any of her other subjects. The standard provincial report template simply did not fit his daughter’s school, where multiple teachers taught a variety of subjects.

Those report card changes originated back in March 2018 as one of the recommendations to “streamline” November reports from a provincial teacher advisory body, the Council to Improve Classroom Conditions. The problem, as framed by the Council, was “time-consuming” reporting processes and reports that were “confusing to parents.” The solution: reduce “data entry for teachers” and provide “integrated comments” for only two subjects, Language Arts and Math.

Making reports less comprehensive with fewer subject specific comments would never fly with parents who, after all, are the main consumers of those reports. If they were ever asked, they would also likely favour reports with more definitive feedback, including individual student assessment test results in Grades 3, 6 and 8.  Elementary student progress reports that provide feedback on integrated subjects also tend to obscure how students are actually performing in two critical areas, reading and numeracy.

Providing parents with reports including their own child’s provincial assessment scores would remedy that omission. That is not such an outlandish idea when one considers the latest teacher-friendly innovations (Christodoulou 2017) in student assessment reporting. Most North American school authorities are actually providing more and more information not less on both school standards and individual student performance.

Take Ontario, for example. Students in Ontario are all tested in grades 3 and 6 and, while they do not appear on school progress reports, the independent Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) provides parents with a detailed individual report on their child’s progress, benchmarked against provincial student performance standards.

The EQAO individual student report card for Primary Division (Grades 1-3) provides incredibly detailed feedback on reading, writing, and mathematics, reflecting four distinct levels of achievement. It’s also relatively easy to identify how students actually measure up in their performance.

The Grade 9 EQAO math test is a component of the regular school report, accounting for up to 10 per cent of a student’s math mark. Ontario students are also required to pass a Grade 10 Literacy Test or remedial Literacy course to secure a secondary school diploma.

Parents in Ontario are encouraged to work together in partnership with their teachers to improve student learning. “Talk to your child’s teacher,” the EQAO report advises, “about how these results compare to your child’s daily classroom work and assessment information.”

Providing parents with individual student reports on provincial assessment results would be a step forward, but integrating them into Grade 3, 6, and 8 school district reports would be even better. Then parents would be able to see, on one report, how students were performing not only in local schools, but in relation to provincial standards.

What Canadian education needs is more parents like Kristopher Snarby keeping an eye on changes in the system. As a former teacher, he is particularly alert to “teacher-speak” on reports that are “not really intelligible for parents.” “Feedback is critical for parents,” Snarby says, and “that’s why what’s on student reports  really matters.”

Do Student Report Card reforms make matters better – or worse — for parents and students?  Can we find the right balance between providing meaningful, individualized reports while easing teachers’ workloads? What can possibly be wrong with giving teachers more autonomy to make more personal, pointed comments about actual student performance?  Would it be helpful to see both teacher assessments and provincial test results on those reports?  

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University of Kentucky student assessment guru Thomas R. Guskey is back on the Canadian Professional Development circuit with a new version of what looks very much like Outcomes-Based Education.  It is clear that he has the ear of the current leadership in the Education Department of Prince Edward Island.  For two days in late November 2018, he dazzled a captive audience of over 200 senior Island school administrators with has stock presentations extolling the virtues of mastery learning and competency-based student assessment.

GuskeyThomasSpeakingP.E. I’s Coordinator of Leadership and Learning Jane Hastelow was effusive in her praise for Guskey and his assessment theories. Tweets by educators emanating from the Guskey sessions parroted the gist of his message. “Students don’t always learn at the same rate or in the same order,” Guskey told the audience. So, why do we teach them in grades, award marks, and promote them in batches?

Grading students and assigning marks, according to Guskey, can have detrimental effects on children. “No research,” he claims, “supports the idea that low grades prompt students to try harder. More often, low grades lead students to withdraw from learning.”

Professional learning, in Guskey’s world, should be focused not on cognitive or knowledge-based learning, but on introducing “mastery learning” as a way of advancing “differentiated instruction” classrooms. “High-quality corrective instruction,” he told P.E.I. educators, is not the same as ‘re-teaching.’” It is actually a means of training teachers to adopt new approaches that “accommodate differences in students’ learning styles, learning modalities, or types of intelligence.”.

Guskey is well-known in North American education as the chief proponent for the elimination of percentage grades.  For more than two decades, in countless PD presentations, he has promoted his own preferred brand of student assessment reform. “It’s time, “ he insists, “ to abandon grading scales that distort the accuracy, objectivity and reliability of students’ grades.”

Up and coming principals and curriculum leads, most without much knowledge of assessment, have proven to be putty in his hands. If so, what’s the problem?   Simply put, Dr. Guskey’s theories, when translated into student evaluation policy and reporting, generate resistance among engaged parents looking for something completely different – clearer, understandable, jargon-free student reports with real marks. Classroom teachers soon come to realize that the new strategies and rubrics are far more complicated and time-consuming, often leaving them buried in additional workload.

Guskey’s student assessment theories do appeal to school administrators who espouse progressive educational principles. He specializes in promoting competency-based education grafted onto student-centred pedagogy or teaching methods.

Most regular teachers today are only too familiar with top-down reform designed to promote “assessment for learning” (AfL) and see, first hand, how it has led to the steady erosion of teacher autonomy in the classroom.

While AfL is a sound assessment philosophy, pioneered by the leading U.K. researcher Dylan Wiliam since the mid-1990s, it has proven difficult to implement. Good ideas can become discredited by poor implementation, especially when formative assessment becomes just another vehicle for a new generation of summative assessment used to validate standards.

Education leaders entranced by Guskey’s theories rarely delve into where it all leads for classroom teachers.  In Canada, it took the “no zeros” controversy sparked in May 2012 by Alberta teacher Lynden Dorval to bring the whole dispute into sharper relief. As a veteran high school Physics teacher, Dorval resisted his Edmonton high school’s policy which prevented him from assigning zeros when students, after repeated reminders, failed to produce assignments or appear for make-up tests.

Teachers running smack up against such policies learn that the ‘research’ supporting “no zeros” policy can be traced back to an October 2004 Thomas Guskey article in the Principal Leadership magazine entitled “Zero Alternatives.”

Manitoba social studies teacher Michael Zwaagstra analyzed Guskey’s research and found it wanting.  His claim that awarding zeros was a questionable practice rested on a single 20-year-old opinion-based presentation by an Oregon English teacher to the 1993 National Middle School conference. Guskey’s subsequent books either repeat that reference or simply restate his hypothesis as an incontestable truth.

SpadyWilliamOBEGuskey’s theories are certainly not new. Much of the research dates back to the early 1990s and the work of William Spady, a Mastery Learning theorist known as the prime architect of the ill-fated Outcomes-Based Education (OBE) movement.  OBE was best exemplified by the infamous mind-boggling systematized report cards loaded with hundreds of learning outcomes, and it capsized in in the early 2000s. in the wake of a storm of public and professional opposition in Pennsylvania and a number of other states.

The litmus test for education reform initiatives is now set at a rather low bar – “do no harm” to teachers or students.  What Thomas Guskey is spouting begs for more serious investigation. One red flag is his continued reference to “learning styles” and “multiple intelligences,” two concepts that do not exist and are now considered abandoned theories.

Guskey’s student assessment theories fly mostly in the face of the weight of recent research, including that of Dylan Wiliam.  Much of the best research is synthesized in Daisy Christodoulou’s 2014 book, Making Good Progress. Such initiatives float on unproven theories, lack supporting evidence-based research, chip away at teacher autonomy, and leave classroom practitioners snowed under with heavier ‘new age’ marking loads.

A word to the wise for  P.E.I. Education leadership – look closely before you leap. Take a closer look at the latest research on teacher-driven student assessment and why OBE was rejected twenty years ago by classroom teachers and legions of skeptical parents.

What’s really new about Dr. Thomas Guskey’s latest project known as Competency-Based Assessment? What is its appeal for classroom teachers concerned about time-consuming, labour-intensive assessment schemes?  Will engaged and informed parents ever accept the elimination of student grades? Where’s the evidence-based research to support changes based upon such untested theories? 

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Ontario now aspires to global education leadership in the realm of student evaluation and reporting. The latest Ontario student assessment initiative, A Learning Province, announced in September 2017 and guided by OISE education  professor Dr. Carol Campbell, cast a wide net encompassing classroom assessments, large scale provincial tests, and national/international assessment programs.  That vision for “student-centred assessments” worked from the assumption that future assessments would capture the totality of “students’ experiences — their needs, learning, progress and well-being.”

The sheer scope whole project not only deserves much closer scrutiny, but needs to be carefully assessed for its potential impact on frontline teachers. A pithy statement by British teacher-researcher Daisy Christodoulou in January 2017 is germane to the point: “When government get their hands on anything involving the word ‘assessment’, they want it to be about high stakes monitoring and tracking, not about low-stakes diagnosis.”  In the case of  Ontario, pursuing the datafication of social-emotional-learning and the mining of data to produce personality profiles is clearly taking precedence over the creation of teacher-friendly assessment policy and practices.

One of the reasons Ontario has been recognized as a leading education system is because of its success over the past 20 years in establishing an independent Education Quality and Accountability Office  (EQAO) with an established and professionally-sound provincial testing program in Grades 3, 6, 9 and 10.  Whether you support the EQAO or not, most agree that is has succeeded in establishing reliable benchmark standards for student performance in literacy and mathematics.

The entire focus of Ontario student assessment is now changing. Heavily influenced by the Ontario People for Education Measuring What Matters project, the province is plunging ahead with Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) assessment embracing what Ben Williamson aptly describes as “stealth assessment” – a set of contested personality criteria utilizing SEL ‘datafication’ to measure “student well-being.” Proceeding to integrate SEL into student reports and province-wide assessments is also foolhardy when American experts Angela Duckworth and David Scott Yeager warn that the ‘generic skills’ are ill- defined and possibly unmeasureable.

Social and emotional learning is now at the very core of Ontario’s Achieving Excellence and Equity agenda and it fully embraces “supporting all students” and enabling them to achieve “a positive sense of well-being – the sense of self, identity, and belonging in the world that will help them to learn, grow and thrive.” The Ontario model is based upon a psycho-social theory that “well-being” has “four interconnected elements” critical to student development, with self/spirit at the centre. Promoting student well-being is about fostering learning environments exhibiting these elements:

Cognitive: Development of abilities and skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, and the ability to be flexible and innovative.

Emotional: Learning about experiencing emotions, and understanding how to recognize, manage, and cope with them.

Social: Development of self-awareness, including the sense of belonging, collaboration, relationships with others, and communication skills.

Physical: Development of the body, impacted by physical activity, sleep patterns, healthy eating, and healthy life choices.

Self/Spirit:  Recognizing the core of identity whieh has “different meanings for different people, and can include cultural heritage, language, community, religion or a broader spirituality.”

Ontario’s new student report cards, proposed for 2018-19 implementation, will incorporate an distinct SEL component with teacher evaluations on a set of “transferable skills” shifting the focus from organization and work habits to “well-being” and associated values, while retaining grades or marks for individual classes. The Ontario Education “Big Six” Transferable Skills are: critical thinking, innovation and creativity, self-directed learning, collaboration, communication, and citizenship.  Curiously absent from the Ontario list of preferred skills are those commonly found in American variations on the formula: grit, growth mindset, and character

The emerging Ontario student assessment strategy needs to be evaluated in relation to the latest research and best practice, exemplified in Dylan Wiliam’s student assessment research and Daisy Christodoulou’s 2017 book Making Good Progress: The Future of Assessment for Learning.  Viewed through that lens, the Ontario student assessment philosophy and practice falls short on a number of counts.

  1. The Generic Skills Approach: Adopting this approach reflects a fundamental misunderstanding about how students learn and acquire meaningful skills. Tacking problem-solving at the outset, utilizing Project-Based Learning to “solve-real life problems” is misguided  because knowledge and skills are better acquired  through other means. The “deliberate practice method” has proven more effective. Far more is learned when students break down skills into a ‘progression of understanding’ — acquiring the knowledge and skill to progress on to bigger problems.
  2. Generic Feedback: Generic or transferable skills prove to be unsound when used as a basis for student reporting and feedback on student progress. Skills are not taught in the abstract, so feedback has little meaning for students. Reading a story and making inferences, for example, is not a discrete skill; it is dependent upon knowledge of vocabulary and background context to achieve reading comprehension.
  3. Hidden Bias of Teacher Assessment: Teacher classroom assessments are highly desirable, but do not prove as reliable as standardized measures administered under fair and objective conditions. Disadvantaged students, based upon reliable, peer-reviewed research, do better on tests than of regular teacher assessments. “Teacher assessment is biased not because they are carried out by teachers, but because it is carried out by humans.”
  4. Unhelpful Prose Descriptors: Most verbal used in system-wide assessments and reports are unhelpful — tend to be jargon-ridden, unintelligible to students and parents, and prove particularly inaccessible to students struggling in school. Second generation descriptors are “pupil friendly” but still prove difficult to use in learning how to improve or correct errors.
  5. Work-Generating Assessments: System-wide assessments, poorly constructed, generate unplanned and unexpected marking loads, particularly in the case of qualitative assessments with rubrics or longer marking time. In the U.K., for example, the use of grade descriptors for feedback proved much more time consuming than normal grading of written work Primary teachers who spent 5 hours a week on assessment in 2010, found that, by 2013, they were spending 10 hours a week.AssessmentMarkLoadCrisisWhat’s wrong with the new Ontario Assessment Plan and needs rethinking?
  1. The Generic Skills Approach – Teaching generic skills (SEL) doesn’t work and devalues domain-specific knowledge
  2. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) models — carry inherent biases and are unmeasurable
  3. Breach of Student Security – Data mining and student surveys generate personality data without consent
  4. Erosion of Teacher Autonomy – Student SEL data generated by algorithms, creates more record-keeping, more marking, cuts into classroom time.

The best evidence-based assessment research, applied in deconstructing the Ontario Assessment initiative, raises red flags.  Bad student assessment practices, as Wiliam and Christodoulou show, can lead to serious workload problems for classroom teachers. No education jurisdiction that lived up to the motto “Learning Province” would plow ahead when the light turns to amber.

A summary of the researchED Ontario presentation delivered April 14, 2018, at the Toronto Airport Westin Hotel. 

Where is the new Ontario student assessment initiative really heading? Is it a thinly-disguised attempt to create a counterweight to current large-scale student achievement assessments? Is it feasible to proceed with SEL assessment when leading researchers question its legitimacy and validity? Are we running the risk of opening the door to the wholesale mining of student personal information without consent and for questionable purposes? 

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The arrival of Nova Scotia Student Report Cards in June 2013 provoked quite a reaction from parents, particularly those with students in Atlantic Canada’s largest school board.   “Ridiculous.” “Meaningless.” “Mumbo-jumbo.”  Those were just a few of the words used by Halifax region parents to describe the computer-generated InSchool reports utilizing PowerSchool, the province’s  new $6 million student information system.   After an initial attempt by Deputy Education Minister Carole Olsen to deflect the stinging criticism, the Minister Ramona Jennex, Chair of CMEC, was compelled to intervene, promising to look into the concerns.

InSchoolBannerEducation officials in Nova Scotia were clearly taken aback by the reaction and acted like it was news to them that the canned reports were incomprehensible to most parents and virtually every student, certainly in the elementary grades.  Education Reporter Frances Willick deserves credit for unearthing the latest parental outcry, but the concerns are not new, nor will they be fixed by a few cosmetic changes on student reports.

Some twenty years ago, educators were confronted with a wave of educational reform focused on introducing Outcome Based Education (OBE) and increasing demand for standardized testing to provide more assurance of student achievement levels. Most educational administrators and consultants reacted instinctively against such intrusions and adapted by developing some rather ingenious counter measures.  Unable to stop the advance of standardized assessments, they resorted to retaining control of student reporting and turning it to different purposes.

Student reports cards have been filled with gibberish since at least  the early 1990s. Much of it can be traced back to a February 1993 Ontario Ministry of Education document known as The Common Curriculum, Grades 1 -9.  That document introduced teachers to the term “learning outcomes” and attempted to destream Grade 9 and replace a subject-based curriculum with more holistic cross-curricular understandings.  In the case of Language Learning Outcomes, reading was downgraded and the word “spelling” dropped from the elementary lexicon.  After parents rose up calling for “a set curriculum with specific goals,” the so-called “dumbed-down curriculum” was shelved, but a new student evaluation system based upon “meeting provincial outcomes” survived.

CouldDoBetterOCERIntended as a means of providing parents with regular communication reflecting measurable standards, OBE student report cards become quite the reverse.  School curriculum was re-written around “learning outcomes” and professional development was geared to teaching teachers the new “educratic” language.  Communicating with parents gradually morphed from providing personal, often candid comments about students, to tiny snippets reflecting the “expected outcomes.”  When Student Reports became standardized and machine-generated, the “student outcomes” jargon became entrenched and accepted, rather sadly, as a demonstration of teaching competence.

Standardizing report cards became a vehicle for implementing the new orthodoxy.  In Canada’s provincial systems, OBE was captured by educators who opposed testing and sought to undercut its influence with “assessment for learning.”  Grading and ranking students, once the staple of teaching,  became dirty words and the initial standardized reports sought to replace marks with measures of formative assessment.  Ontario’s first Standardized Report Card, eventually rejected, attempted to introduce a new set of incredibly vague measures such as “developing,” developed, and “fully developed” understandings.

Today’s standardized report cards, as bad as they are, could well have been worse. Many professional teachers, particularly in high schools, resisted the “dumbing down” of curriculum and the invasion of ‘politically-correct’ report writing.  The leading teachers’ unions, the OSSTF, BCTF, and NSTU, opposed student reporting that chipped away at teacher autonomy and consumed more and more of a teacher’s time to complete.  In Nova Scotia, for example, the Grade 9 to 12 reports may be littered with edu-babble comments, but they still provide percentage grades.  In Grades 1 to 8, the reports still retain a watered down letter grade system.

A closer look at the Nova Scotia Power School report card reveals that the grading system has also been impacted. In Grades 1 to 8, for example, the range of grades has been narrowed to reflect the goal of equality of outcomes. The highest grade possible is now “A” and it signifies “meeting learning outcomes,” and “F” has been eliminated entirely. No one, it seems, can be outstanding or “exceed expected outcomes.”

The current flap over Nova Scotia report cards is simply the latest manifestation of a much deeper problem.  Education authorities favour standardized student information systems and Nova Scotia’s 2010 full adoption of Power School was mostly driven by the need to track student attendance.  The reporting module, adapted from the template with few adaptations, was essentially an afterthought. It is quite clear now that Power School was a Trojan Horse for the advance of standardized reports and the latest wave of “canned reporting” and “robo comments.”

What can we finally secure personalized, common sense Student Report Cards?  Is it just a matter of linguistic cosmetics or part of a much deeper problem entrenched in the current educational system?   What needs to be undone, before we restore sanity to student reporting?

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Cheaters do not really prosper in schools, but many are now being given a “second chance.”   In a few Canadian and American school districts, giving students a second chance to pass tests, examinations, and other assignments, has actually become accepted as “student assessment” policy promoting a unique 21st century concept of “fairness.”  In Newfoundland’s largest school board, the Eastern School District, the policy was changed in October 2011 so students cheating or plagiarizing will no longer be assigned a mark of zero.  http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/article/1075276–cheating-students-get-second-chance-in-newfoundland

The Newfoundland and Labrador school board’s policy change is not what it seemed – an isolated and rather bizarre deviation from sound education policy. The tradional “automatic zero” is dying a slow death, aided and abetted by student assessment experts, and being supplanted by “do-over” evaluation practice in schools across North America. The Eastern School Board Superintendent Ford Rice was quite accurate when he claimed that the policy was driven by “current literature in education” and was “consistent in philosophy” with policies in other boards across Canada.  http://www.cbc.ca/news/pdf/nl-evaluation-regulations-20111005.pdf

Publicly announcing the Newfoundland school board’s new policy is what really sparked a firestorm of protest. President of the provincial Teachers’ Association Lily Cole spoke out, saying that teachers were not only frustrated but very unhappy with the policy which took responsibility for teaching “responsibility, respect, honesty, and values” away from regular teachers. “This just takes it out of our hands,” she told both CBC News and The Toronto Star.

“Students will not be given zeros for cheating,” Rice insisted, because the Board’s educational philosophy was to “separate student behaviour from learning to give us a true picture of what the student knows.”  Rising to defend the new student cheating policy on the airwaves was perhaps the leading exponent of “do-over” student assessment, Ontario education consultant Damian Cooper.  In the old system, he claimed, students who “failed at the test” were “tossed onto the heap ” and branded “non-achievers or low-achievers.”   http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/newfoundland-labrador/story/2011/10/25/nl-cheating-student-reaction-teachers-1025.html

A close examination of newly revised Student Assessment policies in a cross-section of school boards in Ontario, British Columbia, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Ohio is most revealing. Most of the policies are like that of the Halifax Regional School Board (C.007 Program,, clearly separating the evaluation of student achievement from that of student behaviour.  Indeed, many use the same wording when separating the two and virtually identical to that found in Damian Cooper’s book, Talk About Assessment.  http://damiancooperassessment.com/talk.html  In his more recent offering, Redefining Fair, he goes even further in trying to dispel “outdated beliefs regarding fairness” in so-called “mixed-ability classrooms.”

What’s really happening in the strange world of student assessment?  A small band of learning assessment experts, led by Damian Cooper and one of his mentors, Scarborough consultant  Ken O’Connor, The Grade Doctor, exert a tremendous influence over school administrators and consultants with little or no background in testing or evaluation. “First and foremost,” O’Connor preaches, ” accuracy requires that behaviours and attitudes be separated from achievement, so that grades are pure measures of achievement.”  According to this iron dictum, late penalties, absence, academic dishonesty, or even bonus marks have no place in determining student grades. And furthermore, awarding percentage marks is unacceptable because “no one can accurately describe 101 levels” of proficiency. http://www.ascd.org/ascd-express/vol5/503-newvoices.aspx

Student assessment experts like Damian Cooper pop up everywhere because most school boards are desperate to improve their idiosyncratic, autonomous, teacher-driven student evaluation practices. Over the 2009-10 school year, Cooper was hired to give “Tools for Assessment” Workshops from one end of the country to another, including prominent recorded talks in Vancouver, Barrie,ON,  and Sackville, NB.  From July 5 to 8, 2010, he was the sole presenter a a two-day intensive Workshop, entitled “Fostering Assessment Literacy in Our Schools” sponsored by the CMEC -Atlantic section, and funded by NB Education and all four teachers unions.

How were Damian Cooper’s assessment theories seeded in the Maritimes?  Look no further than the the Assessment Summit, held in late August 2009, at Halifax’s World Trade and Convention Centre.  Close to 600 school officials and teachers attended the extravaganza headlined by Damian Cooper, Ken O’Connor, and Rick Stiggins, head of Educational Testing Service (ETS) Assessment from Portland, Oregon.

A Media Advisory issued by the NSTU left no doubt about the actual purpose of the education Summit. ” These most distinguished assessment experts,” the SSRSB’s Sue Taylor-Foley stated,will illustrate the fundamental purpose of assessment is not to rate, rank, and sort students, but rather to provide meaningful feedback that leads to improved student learning.”  The core theme, she emphasized, was to promote “Common Assessment” across schools in Nova Scotia and beyond.  http://www.nstu.ca/images/pklot/MA_NSELC09.pdf

Since the Newfoundland cheating policy change hit the news, an eerie silence has descended upon Student Assessment Divisions in most Canadian school boards.  Superintendent Rice and NLSBA Executive Director Brian Shortall, supported by Cooper, have been fending off a wave of vocal opposition, leveled by irate parents, taxpayers, teachers and high school students.  Over 75% of all respondents to a CBC News St. John’s  poll were adamantly opposed to “pardoning” student cheaters.  On the CBC Radio Maritime Magazine show (October 29), “Mind the Gap,”  Shortall offered a rather feeble defense of the change and received some tacit support from NB Superintendent Karen Branscombe (NB District 2, Moncton).

Not every Canadian school board has given up on curbing student cheating and plagiarism. The Toronto and District School Board policy on “Academic Honesty” stands out as a prime example.  “Cheating and plagiarism will not be condoned,” the TDSB policy (PR613) proclaims. What happens if a student violates that policy?  “A mark of zero may be awarded for the assignment in question and a repeated pattern of academic dishonesty may result in an escalating severity of consequences.”

Giving student cheaters a second chance is symptomatic of profound changes now underway in student assessment policy.  Where is the educational research to support the student evaluation theories being espoused by Damian Cooper and his cohorts?  Does separating completely student achievement from student behaviour in the evaluation process make any real sense — and what are the likely consequences? Should student cheaters be pardoned in our schools?  Taking the larger view,  is all of this threatening to produce what might be called a “do-over” generation?

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Student reports have emerged, once again, as a battleground in the contested terrain of Canadian public education. Ontario  initiated the latest round of “report card reform” by announcing that the Ministry of Education would  issuing fall report cards without real marks  to elementary school pupils starting in the fall term 2010. In Nova Scotia, the Education Department has also begun to implement PowerSchool, a flashy new $4.5 million centralized Student Information System with province-wide attendance tracking and its own brand of standardized student reports.  The Nova Scotia pilot project has been a “schmozzle” with new mid-term reports delayed in many of the 78 pilot schools.
Although Ontario is no longer considered Canada’s leading education province, public education reforms there have a way of popping-up elsewhere, and particularly in the Atlantic provinces.  So far, Ontario is the only province moving to only  two elementary report cards with letter grades per year.  In 2010-11, one will be issued in late January or early February, the other at the end of the school year in June.  For veterans of earlier battles in the early 1990s against “dumbed-down” standardized student reports the early signs are ominous.

The fall progress report card went home with Ottawa elementary school students this week.

A Sample Ontario Mid-Term Progress Report (CBC)

Where did the concept of “Grade-less” mid-term  progress reports originate?  While the Dalton McGuinty Liberal government is now championing the cause, the whole idea came from the teachers, and not parents.   The Ontario elementary  teachers’ federation first approached the Education Ministry about dropping the report cards in August 2006, after its delegates voted overwhelmingly to support the changes.  “Teachers have about six to eight weeks to make a formal assessment evaluation in reporting to parents, and it’s a very short period of time to do that,” said ETFO president Sam Hammond, speaking in December 2009 on behalf of the province’s 70,000 teachers and education workers.     http://www.cbc.ca/canada/toronto/story/2009/12/22/ontario-report-cards743.html#ixzz15TmOmtnl
Nova Scotia’s latest education reform is driven by Pearson Education software technology imported from California.  It was also launched in early November and purports to be a step in the direction of providing students and parents with more timely information on achievement, homework, attendance, and grades.
Does the Nova Scotia  student evaluation system stand up under closer scrutiny?  The new Student Report Cards will be standardized, but still retain traditional marks. So far, so good.  Student reports for Primary will be purely anecdotal, but Grades 1 to 8 will be based upon Letter Grades and comments, while Grades 9 to 12 will retain percentage grades and subject comments.  One strange variation for Grades 1 to 8 is the absence of the whole “excellent or outstanding” from the appalling “expected learning outcomes” scheme.  No Nova Scotian elementary pupils will ever be found to be either “excellent” or “outstanding.”  What a pity!  When it comes to the comments, the now familiar  “learning outcomes” lingo will almost certainly render them incomprehensible to most parents.

The first skirmish  is underway now in Ontario.  “Education Premier” McGuinty has promised “clear, understandable reports” written ” in plain English.”  Close educational observers remain skeptical. In introducing the new Progress Report on CBC-TV’s The National, a Toronto Board consultant offered a bizarre comment straight from the Hall-Dennis school of “romantic progressivism.”  When asked why grades had been eliminated, she contended that “bad marks’ lowered a pupil’s “self-esteem.” Yes, woolly-headed OISE thinking still lives in some boards.

The public debate in Ontario  is now focusing on the relationship between report cards and public accountability for better student results. MCguinty and his EDucation Minister are defending the new Progress Report and insisting that the new system provides more emphasis on learning skills and work habits, assessing students on their organization, independent work, collaboration and initiative.

Opposition Leader Tim Hudak (PC) has staked out his ground. Last week, Hudak went on record claiming that an Ontario Conservative government would put the grades back in fall report cards. “These are really no longer report cards. They’re simply vague progress reports that are not giving parents the information they need about their children’s success,” Hudak said Wednesday. “Basically, Dalton McGuinty is now experimenting with report cards and taking away the grades and the comments that help parents make important choices about their children.” He also said  parents shouldn’t have to wait until late January or February to know precisely how their children are scoring in individual subjects.

Standardized Student Report Cards invariably become a battleground in the ongoing debate over the real purposes of teaching and learning in our public schools. Just when education reformers think that the “romantic progressives” are in retreat, they come up with new ways of ‘socializing” today’s students in pursuit of what Kathleen Gow aptly termed the “God of self-esteem” Most teachers, and certainly parents, want an earlier assessment to ward off potential problems.  It’s all about whether those assessments actually provide a measure of student achievement or simply serve as convenient tools of social promotion.

Where do you stand on the contentious question of  Student Report Cards?  Should Ontario put grades back into its fall mid-term reports?  How can parents secure Report Cards that actually provide meaningful, individualized student appraisals? Is there something about Standardized Report Cards that smacks of bureaucratic convenience rather than meaningful authentic assessment? It’s high time for a national conversation about this fundamental  educational issue.

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