Weaponizing the Report Card

In today’s standards based report card design session, I shared a story from the road. It featured a devoted and tireless leader from another district that I supported in the same capacity a long, long time ago:

I was doing a bit of norm-setting and establishing expectations relevant to transparency when it became clear that something was off.

I wondered aloud if my friend was having second thoughts. Did he still want to move forward? Did he feel that everyone was ready? He brushed my concerns away, quickly explaining that they were primed for this work, or so he thought, because they’d finished creating a high quality curriculum and crafting aligned assessments.

But something seemed off, and I said so.

“Well, the truth is that we invested a whole lot of time and money in that work,” he sighed. “And teachers agreed to use it, but now quite a few just aren’t.”

I nodded because this isn’t uncommon.

“So, this makes this next step even more important,” he suggested. “We need to start by aligning the report card to all of those assessments. And we need to get as specific as we can, too. If all of those targets are on the report card, they’ll have to teach every little bit of the agreed upon curriculum. And if all of the targets are on the report card, they’ll have to use the assessments in order to get the necessary data.”

And while I appreciated that logic and the frustration that hardened his tone, my previous experiences with standards based grading and reporting gave me great pause. It’s been my experience that weaponizing the report card in order to achieve any kind of accountability rarely inspires positive shifts in practice.

A whole bunch of bad tends to follow instead. It often looks something like this: People find themselves caught off guard (whether they SHOULD be or not rarely matters), they experience varying levels of shame, and they react by expressing various degrees of anger and outrage and fear. And while that might provide beleaguered leaders (like me) a fleeting sense of vindication, it doesn’t help students or parents gain meaningful information about important learning and growth.

And that’s the point.

It might be tempting to use the report card to hold any number of people accountable, but I’m not sure it’s in anyone’s best interests. I’m not sure it’s that simple, either.

“It’s not right for anyone to ignore the agreed upon curriculum,” my friend said. “It’s not fair for anyone to avoid using these assessments, either. They’re the assessments that they created and agreed to use! We spent three years building and testing them. We were thoughtful and careful here.”

And as someone who often facilitates that hard work uphill both ways in two feet of snow wearing flip-flops, I hear that. But I’ve also learned the hard way that two wrongs don’t make a right.

Designing a standards based report card that includes meaningful learning goals and clearly communicates progress to parents and students? Yeah, that’s the right thing to do. But accomplishing this requires people like me to make an honest and non-judgmental assessment of the alignment that currently (and truly) exists or does not exist within the system.

What I learn typically influences the degree of specificity that we use as we articulate our learning goals on the first draft of the report card. Where tight and true alignment exists, specificity is far more possible. When alignment is weak or non-existent, generalizing provides a bit of necessary wiggle. Is this ideal? No. Does it help us gain traction, so that we might grow and improve? Absolutely.

We need to begin where we are, not where we should be or where we want to be.

And that’s okay, if we’re intentional in our design.

I’m reminded of the way Matroyshka dolls sit one inside of the other. Ideally, we’re designing learning goals that remind me of the tiniest doll. Micro. Precise. Nearly granular. Specific. More often, the people that I support aren’t ready to do this consistently within or across grade levels, though. When this is the case, we frame larger learning goals. We generalize a bit. We begin with a bigger doll, knowing that eventually, smaller dolls with similar but finer features and grooves may take her place. This is how we give parents and students as many of the benefits of standards based grading and reporting as we can while giving the system some room to grow.

The work doesn’t end with report card design, though. It can’t. It’s just beginning.

The fact is that standards based grading and reporting have the potential to inspire great shifts in assessment and grading practices, but the report card is rarely the greatest impetus for this. It’s the grading system and documentation and analysis that really makes all of the difference. And once this work begins, it often progresses rapidly because it’s so rewarding. Relieving, even. I find it important to design report cards that invite this evolution while honoring the teachers who open themselves up to this kind of learning and growth.

We don’t have to shame people in order to maintain reasonable expectations or hold one another accountable.

I’ll blog a bit about aligning documentation and grading systems through the weekend, but in the mean time, I’d love your thoughts on what I’ve shared so far, friends.

 

 

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