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.
Education 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.
Intended 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?