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Report cards: a missed chance to give parents meaningful feedback

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

One thing makes me truly envious when I compare my daughter’s Philadelphia public grade school to my niece’s suburban elementary school.

Painful as it is, I can look beyond my niece’s gleaming halls, the campus-like feel of the school setting, and the fact that the school auditorium isn’t also the gymnasium and the cafeteria. That’s the unjust reality of a system that gives my niece every bit of the $17,000 annual per student allotment she deserves, but holds my child down to just $9,000.

No, the thing that really makes me feel the inequity and frustration of Philadelphia public schools has little to do with physical or material differences. It doesn’t even cost much money.

It’s the report card.

For most Philadelphia parents, the report card conference is one of the few times we can sit down with our child’s teacher and actually talk. It is one of few times schools have arranged for parents to have meaningful and structured focus on their child’s instructional program.

On my niece’s report card, there are a handful of grades that indicate how well she is doing. But the real beauty of it lies in the paragraphs of the teacher’s own handwriting, thoughtfully testifying to what the teacher sees my niece learning and doing in her class. Everything about my niece’s report card feels personal and meaningful. During report card conferences, the teacher has ready a full portfolio of examples of my niece’s work, including marked pages in books that indicate where my niece has done an exceptional job reading or struggled to understand a math concept.

And then there’s Philadelphia’s report card.

For elementary school, it starts off with reading grades via a letter grade rating students on a scale from A to S. When I asked one of my daughter’s teacher what the letter “K” had to do with my child’s classroom reading, I learned this was an independent reading assessment that had nothing to do with how my daughter performed on classroom reading assignments.

And that detached approach to assessment continues throughout the report card.

Math, science and social studies share equivalent space with enrichment programs (whatever are left, that is). That means one number from 1-4 to let you know how she’s doing in these critical subjects. There’s the standard behavior section of “cooperating with others” and “putting forth effort” (pick your choice of “S” for satisfactory or “N” for not).

For ESOL students, there’s nothing on the report card except the level of the child, which is as informative as indicating what grade your child is in.

But the real winning aspect of the Philadelphia report card is under the Teacher Comment section. That’s when the teacher selects from a bland menu of computer options, like “eager to try new things” – if you’re good – and “needs to work harder” – if you’re not so good. And don’t be surprised to see the exact same teacher comments from the first cycle to the last cycle, like my daughter got in first grade.

Now it’s true that there is a scheduled teacher conference. That’s when you can sit down face-to-face with the teacher and discuss in depth all the growth and progress and areas for improvement over the last four months. Our teacher last year had a portfolio ready with our daughter’s work. But given that conferences are scheduled ten minutes apart . . . we barely had time to flip through it.

It wasn’t always like this. When I taught in the Philadelphia schools in the 1990s, there was a strong movement toward authentic assessment, non-graded classrooms, and portfolios. Many teachers created their own supplemental report cards and collected substantial portfolios of children’s work. We scheduled additional times and dates so we could double the length of our conferences.

Many teachers still do, including my daughter’s teacher this year. These teachers know that report cards are critical means for engaging parents and building confidence in your school’s academic goals and programs.

These teachers take assessment seriously. The problem is, our school district doesn’t.

So when you go up for your ten-minute teacher conference, put aside the report card. Don’t waste this precious time discussing eight individual letters.

Just look your teacher in the eye, and ask them, “Show me what my child has accomplished in your class.”

And then maybe we can get somewhere.

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