Posted by: Tom Triumph | June 6, 2012

Narrative Report Cards Are Obsolete

Narrative report cards are not a bad idea because of past arguments against them, but because the use of technology has made him obsolete.  This conclusion follows a protracted investigation of our own reporting practices.  While I cannot say that our consultant was pushing the narrative, it was clear that all of the non-classroom teachers involved were fans.

The following is a Q and A with myself following the internal dialogue I’ve had over the issue:

Q: What is a narrative report card?

Interestingly, I cannot find a clear definition.  There are plenty of well argued papers both for and against, and plenty of examples of the cards themselves, but no clear definition.  This is because the term “narrative report card” is used loosely to describe any reporting system that uses words to provide some context to performance.  Some of the articles described what they thought did not qualify, but then assumed the reader knew what a narrative system truly looked like.  Although I have read articles counting checked phrases as narratives, for this article I will declare a system requiring teachers to write detailed comments that provide context for classroom performance a true narrative reporting system.

Narrative report cards were developed in response to the solitary letter grade that often marked mastery in a class. Not all grades of “B” are the same (especially in the pre-rubric era), and the narrative tried to give parents context as to how their child was doing, why that was so and what to expect in the future.  Beyond a parent-teacher conference, parents neither saw the grades that lived in the teacher’s gradebook nor communicated with the school on a regular basis.  The lone letter grade was often the only information parents had to work with.  It became an end in itself.  Narrative report cards were designed to empower both students and parents in improving performance by identifying specific successes and needs.

For parents cut off from their child’s education, narrative report cards offered meaningful context.  In the days before the internet and social media, they were a vast improvement over the letter grade.  They also created a personal connection, humanizing both the student and the teacher and emphasizing their relationship in learning.

Q: Beyond the issue of time spent reporting and discussions about benefits gained, what are the arguments against narrative report cards?

In “Toward Better Report Cards” Grant Wiggins argues:

No matter how detailed, a narrative can never tell us whether language that describes, praises, and criticizes is relative to our expectations for the child, classroom norms, or absolute high standards of achievement.

I would argue even further: Narrative report cards are subjective.  In reporting on a high flyer, a teacher is still expected to offer criticism and areas for improvement.  Even for the most unsuccessful student, teachers offer positives.  These are important in recognizing past work and in looking forward, but they also illustrate the skewed nature of the narrative–if both successes and failures are to be included the teacher is already unnaturally couching their reporting.  For the student-teacher relationship this balance is important, but for reporting on progress it is not adequate.

There is another issue: We see what we want in narratives.  Reading a narrative full of praise, a success driven parent will focus on the sole concern.  Similarly, parents of struggling students will cling to the lone strand of hope  offered, even using it to dismiss very real issues that need addressing.

And teachers write what they want to believe, too.  Teachers are hopeful.  They need to believe in the future.  At the very least, no one wants the ton of bricks an angry parent can drop when you imply their child isn’t the brilliant star they’ve lead themselves to believe.

While trying to offer more context for parents, and put student progress on a more personal level, narrative reports can muddy the water.

Q: Certainly some aspects of the narrative are objective?

They can be.  Johnny is a very fluid writer who uses details to support his clearly defined arguments is an objective assessment of Johnny’s writing.  The basis for this narrative, though, is the work.  At some point it was assessed, either with a rubric or a letter grade.  That assessment is what grounds the objective statement in the narrative.

If this is true, why not use the original assessment grade?  A solitary grade might not offer as much information as the comment above.  A single line–Civil War Paper: B–is not very telling.  There are several reporting systems, though, which attempt to. A rubric that measures fluidity, details, supporting evidence and focus can report this.  Other systems break subject grades into smaller elements: Writing, Reading and Work Habits.  Or Fluidity, Details, Focus, with a grade for each. Simply imagine that every assignment is either really focused (Spelling Test #3) or broken down (Civil War Essay: Focus: B; Civil War Essay: Evidence: C; Civil War Essay: Analysis: B; etc.) so that students and parents can zero in on those areas mastered (focus) and those still emerging (evidence!). Regardless of your choice, the information written about Johnny exists in a numerated, objective way.

If teachers can share the elements of mastery, they can provide the same information as a narrative but using objective means.  Until recently, teachers did not share this breakdown.  Because it was written in a book it was difficult.

Technology has changed that.

But narratives offer personal assessments standards based report cards–and any content centered reporting system–cannot.

On their own, this is true.  But technology has changed that.

First of all, many schools now have systems that put teachers’ gradebooks online.  Some teachers and schools are hesitant to give up control, but many offer 24/7 access: Students and parents can log in and see their grades in real time.  More important, they can see the assessments that make up the grade.

With a standards based report card, teachers can link assessments with standards.  Some teachers even link the assessment to a description of the assignment and/or standard being measured.  This provides quite a bit of context, especially if the teacher has provided well planned handouts and unit plans.  For any curious student or parent, they can explore the reasons behind every assignment and see how the grade was derived.

Q: Okay, everyone now has access to every assessment outcome in real time.  Objective information is there.  But standards based report cards and spreadsheets have been around a long time.  That’s not a narrative.  Besides online access, how has technology made the narrative report card obsolete?

It is the second half of the technology equation that makes the narrative obsolete.

Empowered with information, technology has provided parents with the ability to act.

Teachers are now writing narratives every day because parents and schools have email.

A few years ago, parents could email teachers about concerns, but they had little objective information that would prompt them to write.  If you look at old emails, it’s mainly about behavior and dentist appointments.  And while detailed spreadsheets and standards based reporting was around, it was often shared at the end of the marking period and coincided with conference time.  Reports were too late to intercede and the focus of the meetings was often looking at the next quarter or longer.

Now, parents are checking the online gradebooks with regular frequency.  As the gradebook is broken down into elements, parents are responding to what they see in a timely fashion.  Missing work and poor performance is prompting questions from parents, which elicit narrative emails from teachers.

Let me pause to repeat that: Narrative emails.

On the teacher’s end, they are reporting social and behavioral concerns via a narrative email, including parents in helping their children.  These dialogues are happening throughout the quarter, and are often more extensive and meaningful than an end of the quarter narrative.

They are meaningful because they are in response to real concerns and needs, not a timetable that demands to be fed each quarter.  Communication is now fueled not only by concern over missing or poor grades, but also a moody attitudes and complaints about peers.  Teachers are noting behavior that is chronic but does not warrant a trip to the office.  Parents are reporting things they heard, trying to clear the air.  There is dialogue

Q: Is there really enough emailing going on to replace the narrative?

Yes and no.  First, consider how much narrative writing you are going to be asked to do for a narrative report card.  How much of it is either relative or genuine.  Let’s be honest: Most of it is on demand.  There is a time-crunch.  You know that a dashed, timely email will have more depth than most of what you write at the end of the quarter.

Many of your emails will be better than your dashed job.  For a third of your students, emails will be plentiful.

But I make an effort to write a few emails every week.  When I see something good, I write a quick note.  If I’m concerned, a drop a sentence.  A few minutes in a meeting, I glance down my list of students and pick one whose parents I have not heard from in awhile and tap out a few lines.  These emails are always well received, and go further than the obligatory comments that accompany my quarterly grade.

Q: Isn’t something lost, though, by this 24/7 dialogue?

Yes.  Perhaps I’m old school, but I believe in finality.  I also like a paper report card.  It feels real.   Without it, there is no closure.

All things in education come full circle, and I believe it is time for the old letter grade report card.  A simple “B” could go a long way.

When my son comes home with an “2” for “Nearly Proficient” I’m never alarmed.  A “B-” would raise questions and cause me to act.  Our middle school program embraces the letter grade because parents not only understand it, but act.  They email.  There are meetings.  And things happen at home.  Plus, the students care.  Never having gotten a “grade” other than numbers or some type of “S” the A, B, C, D and N is respected.

My report card reads: Language Arts: B.  Then, a line (perhaps) about the student.  Decent skills, but too many missing assignments.  I question if the comments are even necessary anymore.

This final grade should come as no surprise to anyone who has accessed the online gradebook or dropped an email.  Nearly every parent received some sort of personal communication throughout the quarter, as I’ve made this one of my goals.  Plus, our team sends out a weekly newsletter.  It’s all there to be accessed.  By the end of the quarter, the grade is a fait d’ accompli

Q: But what about having those narrative words in the permanent file?

If the words are not objective, why put them in?  Who’s going to read them.  In the case of a file review, a paper trail is very helpful in creating a picture for future teachers trying to help.  For any student a teacher is concerned about, relevant emails should be printed and placed in the file.  They should offer a snapshot that would guide an EST or other exploration.

If the case is one of leaving praise for future teachers to see, leave a certificate or personal letter.  In fact, write a personal letter to the parent and put a copy in the file; you’ve done your job and the parent feels good about their kid.

Q: Last words?

Sure.  Here’s a summary.

Online websites and grade books empower students and families.  Any objective information is available.  If teachers tie their assessments to standards, and break down the elements in the reporting, everyone will have an objective snapshot of the student’s mastery of the material.  As the gradebook is updated with each new assessment, a fuller picture will develop.

Given this information, teachers can contact students and parents about progress while parents and students can contact teachers looking for clarification and insight.  With the objective data as a foundation, the resulting dialogue becomes the narrative.

I find that the people most in support of narrative report cards are administrators who don’t have to write fifty of them.  There are a few teachers who do them, but they’ve been doing them since pre-computer days (they also tend to have programs that stress personal connections–these folks are great, but hardly replicable).  In theory, they sound nice, but they are obsolete.  In this data driven, electronic world we have too much to do already.  The last thing anyone needs is a redundant piece of subjective feedback banged out one evening because the report cards are mailed out on Friday.

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