Conversations About Standards-Based Report Cards: Do Your Students Know How They’re Doing?

The changing of the leaves can only mean one thing…marking periods are coming to an end.

October is one of my favorite months. Writers workshop, by now, is in full swing in the classrooms where I visit and work. Energy is high. People are happy. My daughter’s birthday is in October. Pumpkins, apples, fall harvest festivals, you name it. I love it all. Here in Vermont, the fall foliage is hitting its peak (and this year its particularly beautiful, I must say). Halloween is in the air.

But October has its gloomier side as well. By the end of the month, it’s pretty cold. The days are getting shorter and shorter. October in Vermont usually ends with the dull, grey, thud of November. And with November, comes report cards.

A few days ago, one of my favorite teachers to work with expressed concern over her school’s new standards-based report cards. What about the student who is working so so hard? The one who is making tons of progress, who is growing leaps and bounds, but still, no matter how you look at it, her work is going to be scored a “1” or “Below Standard,” or even “Far Below Standard” depending on the language your school decides to use.

This teacher’s concern wasn’t over the rating system, or the standards, or the work being asked of her fifth and sixth graders. She totally feels that the expectations and assessment of her students’ work are fair. The concern was about how to communicate this particular student’s struggle with writing to the child and her family. How do you tell a kid that enjoys writing–loves writing– that even though she was trying her hardest, her writing still just doesn’t meet our expectations? How do you tell her that without completely destroying her love of writing?

Ugh. At the time, I didn’t really have an answer… not a good enough answer anyway.

I’ve been talking about this all week with teachers. From these wonderful conversations, I’ve had a few aha’s and epiphanies regarding standards-based report cards…and I still have a few questions, of course.

Here’s what I’m thinking now. (This could change).

1. Remember, this is only October. Most schools I work with have agreed to report to parents in a way that communicates how the student is doing for this time of year. For example, a student who receives a score of a “2” or “Approaching (End-of-Year) Standards” on most pieces of work is probably meeting our expectations for October. So, this student would likely receive a “3” or “Meets Standards” on the first report card. This seems to make sense to me, since the idea is to communicate clearly with parents. Parents really want to know if their kids are doing okay right now. They’re looking for 3’s (or 4’s) to show that their child is doing fine, and if their child is doing work that is what we would expect for this time of year, 3’s on the report card make sense to me (even if that means there are lots of 2’s on the rubrics).

However, a handful of schools I know of actually don’t do it that way. Instead, most students will receive 1’s or 2’s on their first report card, and across the year, most of them will see 3’s or even 4’s by the end of the year. I have questions about how clear this is, in terms of communicating with parents (who are not educators), but I’ll not bore you by listing them here.

Moving on…

2. It doesn’t benefit the student or his/her family to sugar coat things. As a parent, I definitely want to know if my child is in need of support. I want to know if her work is what’s typical of the grade level or not. The temptation is to say, “Well, it’s only October. I’ll give her a 3 for now…” but this is dishonest, because in your heart of hearts, you know that kid is actually not on grade level right now. It doesn’t mean she won’t be right on track in the future.

3. This was probably my biggest epiphany, and I wish I had thought of it earlier this week. (L.G. if you’re reading this, this is for you!) Yes, a student who sees a 1 or a 2 on a report card is not going to feel great. At all. BUT that student will feel much, much, MUCH worse if he or she didn’t see it coming. I remember getting a low mark on a report card the first semester of a writing class in high school–it had been my favorite class–and it completely took me by surprise. I remember insisting to my parents (who were very upset with me), “I thought I was doing fine! I love that class! It’s my favorite! It has to be a mistake!”

It is so important that each student knows how he/she is doing, all along the way.  I wish my report card conversation from earlier in the week could have focused on this, because there are a lot of interesting points to be made here. The student has to know how her notebook entries would be scored on a rubric or a checklist, how her drafts are doing, and her published pieces too. She should also get to see lots of examples of what a “1” “2” “3” or “4” looks like, to compare with her own work. There shouldn’t be any big surprises on the report card. When we communicate clearly with students (and the families of our most struggling kids) about their writing at each step of the way, they can set realistic, attainable goals, and that score on the report card will confirm what they already have discussed with you, instead of feeling like a huge punch to the gut.

As we approach mid-October, while the leaves are still in peak, and the apple orchards and pumpkin patches are still open, we can all check in to be sure that each of our students knows themselves as writers–strengths, weaknesses, favorite topics, favorite genres, habits, and more. If we haven’t’ already, we can make sure to introduce a rubric or a checklist that kids can use to accurately self-evaluate, and we can confer with kids about their progress so far. My colleague, Tara Smith, recently wrote a wonderful post about using checklists thoughtfully. We can also make a note to call or meet with families of the ones we worry most about so that when those report cards are opened up by kids and families in November, everything makes sense.