How to Rethink Report Cards

Click to Tweet
Report cards should be more personalized and based on competencies.
"When students receive truly personalized feedback, it shows them how deeply their teachers think and care about them, which helps learners appreciate the importance of academic performance and see their teachers as valuable coaching resources, not adversaries."

Believe it or not, the first grading period of the school year is already drawing to a close for many districts around the country. As teachers tabulate scores, finalize grades and craft meaningful comments for report cards, the same question seemingly comes up every term: Isn’t there a better, more authentic, more useful way of doing this?

Most districts still generate report cards that are recognizable relics of the 20th century - half sheets of paper with a few subject names, grades and short comments. This model has persisted for so long because it’s easy: a spreadsheet can easily calculate numeric grades, which align to a given letter, and the opportunity for comments allows each teacher to provide at least some personalized feedback. That standardized report card is easy for parents and family members to understand as well. At a glance, they can get an overview of how well their young learner is doing in the various school subjects and glean which areas require more attention or focus.

However, all that ease-of-use has come at the expense of insight, depth and truly personalized feedback. Many teachers, administrators and even parents know that progress reports and report cards could be more authentic, but rethinking the model seems dangerously boat-shaking. Here are some strategies and mindsets that teachers and schools can use to shift their report card and progress report routines away from the robotic and toward the authentic.

Identify Skills or Competencies, Not Subjects
The left column of that traditional, 20th century progress report always contains the names of the various classes or subjects that students are learning. This provides some insight as to which subjects contain the greatest areas of natural engagement, enthusiasm and talent for individual students, but does little to explain which aspects or skills from that class a learner actually excels in.

Instead of assessing progress one class at a time, it can be useful to assess one skill at a time. That means taking a hard look at the Common Core, state or local curriculum standards, as well as each teacher’s individual content area knowledge to draw out and identify the core skill and knowledge pieces that make up a competent, grade-level understanding of each subject. Once those crucial skills have been identified, they should become the line items for comment and assessment on the progress report rather than some nebulous, overarching subject grade that represents general performance.

This assessment approach draws on the core philosophy of Competency-Based Learning to provide students, parents, administrators and even teachers themselves the strongest and most granular possible understanding of what each learner has mastered, what they’re still working on, and where they need to get by the end of the year. This kind of feedback supports students across the spectrum, from highly motivated top achievers looking to challenge themselves to struggling students who need help focusing on the core concepts they must develop in order to succeed.

Take Personalized Feedback Seriously
For teachers with 30 or 100+ students, generating personalized comments for each learner can seem like a time-consuming drag. That’s why so many students who have A’s simply get, “A pleasure to have in class” in the comment fields of their report cards when they could be getting actual specific praise or actionable feedback.

Yes, personalized feedback takes a little more time than copying and pasting stock comments from a word processor document, but providing individualized insight and notes is a major professional service that is useful to students, their parents, administrators and even other teachers who might meet and work with your students in the future.

When students receive truly personalized feedback, it shows them how deeply their teachers think and care about them, which helps learners appreciate the importance of academic performance and see their teachers as valuable coaching resources, not adversaries. For parents, individualized feedback provides a more specific window into the classroom to help them understand what actually goes on at school each day and to help them understand what they should be supporting or reinforcing at home.

For administrators, truly personalized progress reports allow them to get to know every single student under their supervision in a personal, in-depth way. By reviewing authentic progress reports that identify core skills and provide personalized feedback on each one, administrators can build the understanding of each student that they need to be a positive, engaged community leader and accountability partner with an individual understanding of each learner’s journey. Teachers who meet learners who’ve received authentic, documented personalized feedback in the past can also step into impactful coaching and skill-development roles more quickly when they can see the overall narrative of each student’s journey and ability levels at the outset.

Administrators can support this work by building additional prep time or coverage for teachers during the closing week of each term to ensure they truly have the time to provide the powerful, actionable feedback that will drive achievement for each learner and provide crucial information to that learner’s entire support network.