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Archive for the ‘Student Reports’ Category

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, 1.2.6.4), 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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