Teacher Tip—Writing great report cards

Every now and then I’ll put a few basic tips out. For many teachers, these are the most obvious thing in the world. For others, there may very well be some “why didn’t I think of that?” moments. Let’s hope.

Report card time is a big of a gong show in most schools. As the deadline approaches, extra assignments are given and marked, grades are hastily computed (many now have a computer to do it as things come in; this should be a good thing) and the reports are written. I’m old enough to remember handwriting report cards. These were largely replaced by “bubble sheets” where teachers have the opportunity to select comments from a menu of vague comments that would be more appropriate in a horoscope than a student progress report. Now, many teachers have computer programs that blend both worlds, allowing both selection from banks of general comments and comments freely typed by the teacher. Even with this technology, teachers still manage to churn out worthless reports?

Before I answer that, I suppose I should defend my comment about worthless reports.

What is the report card supposed to tell a parent? Well, first it should tell them something about how much the child has learned, measured against the approved curriculum. So a grade of C+ or 67% tells something, but it isn’t clear what. The parent knows that their child is passing (whatever that entails) and knows that their child is not getting honours (whatever that entails) but that’s about it. The grade does not tell the parent what the child does well, what the child does poorly, and offers absolutely no direction for improvement. Perhaps the comments can help there. Usually not.

Canned comments say “A pleasure to have in class” or “More homework would result in higher grades”. Well, duh. As if anyone doesn’t know that. Worse yet, every parent knows that these are canned comments and the teacher just looks like an insincere idiot. Trust me: parents are not fooled by this nonsense.

A while back I wrote about the importance of explicit success criteria. The idea is simple and obvious: if students don’t know what successful work looks like, or what work is required to be successful, most of them will never be successful. Teachers should make it very clear to students how to recognize successful completion of a task, and how to make sure that they are successful themselves. If this is so, why do we keep it a secret from parents? Share the criteria and demonstrate how their child can be more successful. This is work, I know it, but you owe it to parents to help them to understand the criteria for success. Obviously you can’t append all your rubrics and exemplars to the report card, but there is no reason not to indicate where they are available, in class or online or wherever. Second, your comments should be directly related to the criteria of success. As a teacher you are paid to be partially responsible for your students’ learning. Take responsibility and clearly and carefully communicate it.

Parents are legitimately concerned with their children’s social and behavioural successes and challenges at school. Try to report on these honestly, but don’t dominate the report with these concerns. The student report really is—or ought to be—about student learning.

Let’s be honest, it takes some time and effort to put together all this information for parents. Remember the gong show in the opening paragraphs? When reports are due, it takes a tremendous amount of time and effort for a teacher to record all the relevant information for their students. An elementary school teacher has to report on half a dozen subjects for every student in the class; a high school teacher may have as many as 200 students to report on a single subject. Yeah, this is a tonne of work in a short period of time. How can you get it all done in such a short period of time?

The first step is to challenge the question. Who says it all has to be done at report card time? Early in my career I had a colleague who just wrote excellent report card comments. So I asked her for advice. Her solution was simple and brilliant. She had a box of file cards, arranged by class and student. Every time students did some work, she made notes on the cards. Her report cards were written over the course of the term, not at the end. When it came time to write them up, all it took was a small amount of editing, and voilà! her students had great reports to bring home. Now, if you’re using one of the computerized reporting systems, it’s even easier. You can write each student’s comments a tiny bit at a time over the course of the term. Not only will you write better and more meaningful comments, the work will be spread out over a long period of time, and you’ll barely notice that you’ve done it. Except at report card time: you’ll be going for a nice walk in the sunshine while your colleagues stress over the impossibly large task that they won’t feel good about anyways.

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One thought on “Teacher Tip—Writing great report cards

  1. Good, useful ideas. Here in the States, one of the first decisions to get out of the way is: who are you writing the report card for? The student? The parent? The principal? Some bureaucrat? The digital file? Not always easy to sort out…

    Liked by 1 person

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