Student Reports: More Worthless Than a White Crayon

Here’s a timely reminder of why I hate writing reports, for all you Aussie teachers who, like me, are getting ready to undertake the mammoth and unnecessary task. Are you at a school – like my wife’s – choosing to not write comments this time around, opting instead for letter-grades only, plus face-to-face parent-teacher conferences?

Student Reports: More Worthless Than a White Crayon.

Why ‘Grades’ Are A Useless Form Of Feedback (And Do More Harm Than Good)

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So, ‘smart’ kids are no happier than others. Besides, why does society value academia so highly anyway? School systems think standardised testing will somehow improve learning and that assigning grades and report cards will somehow improve learning, but a large body of research suggests quite the opposite. Kids need feedback that will help them improve. But what do we actually want students to get out of their education? What are we trying to achieve?

A teacher’s take on why schools should scrap ‘grades’, and instead give students real ‘feedback’…

Grades are a useless form of feedback, and do more harm than good
Alfie Kohn outlines here some of his arguments against ‘grades’:
Grades tend to reduce students’ interest in the learning itself
Grades tend to reduce students’ preference for challenging tasks
Grades tend to reduce the quality of students’ thinking
Grades aren’t valid, reliable, or objective
Grades distort the curriculum
Grades waste a lot of time that could be spent on learning
Grades encourage cheating
Grades spoil teachers’ relationships with students
Grades spoil students’ relationships with each other

In this article, educator Chris Crouch gives his three key reasons for his anti-grades stance and why they’re not only potentially harmful to learning, but plain useless and unreliable:
• Grades are inflated
• Grades remove intrinsic motivation
• Grades are poor communicators of student learning

What are we trying to measure, and how do we measure it?
I read yesterday that the world’s ‘smartest’ kids are also the ‘saddest’. Yikes. That goes against the age-old, ‘go to school, get a good education, become smart, get a great job, have a great life’ model that is drilled into us from when we’re young. Surely we don’t prioritise good grades and academic results above the chance for a happy childhood? Although that would be in line with the ‘win-at-all-costs’ mentality that is rife in today’s society. It got me thinking about our push for “results, results, results” in schools, which then got me thinking about how we define and measure “results”.

Of course we want our students to get “results”, but how do we measure the success of education? And besides, what are we actually trying to achieve? I’ve blogged previously about Ken Robinson’s ideas about education and suggestions that we focus too heavily on the ‘academic’. I quoted him as saying “The whole point of education is to get people to learn. If there’s no learning going on, there’s no education going on.” He says that the role of teachers is “to facilitate learning”, to “mentor, stimulate, provoke, engage”. I’ve searched Victoria’s education department website as well as Victoria’s curriculum website and Australia’s National Curriculum website and Australian government’s education department website. Surely, as the four key organisations that determine what my students learn, I will have been able to figure out what I’m expected to be doing when I teach. I couldn’t actually find anything of any use, other than “High quality school education supports productivity and improves the educational outcomes of children, increasing the likelihood that they will attain skills and be in employment” (http://education.gov.au/school-education). My reaction – what the heck does that mean? Let me get this straight… If my students get a job when they finish school, then their education has been a success? Can other people see how ridiculous that sounds? Well, I’m no closer to learning what kind of ‘results’ I’m looking for, other than the specifics listed in curriculum documents. Perhaps that is actually what we’re hoping for? Children that develop a long list of skills and understandings that will lead to them getting a job? In America, don’t the Common Core Standards aim to develop “college and career readiness”? I’m starting to see a pattern.
Kindergarten prepares kids for Primary School,
which prepares kids for High School,
which prepares teenagers for Tertiary Education and work.

>Is this honestly what our education system is/does?< 

Above I listed lots of reasons given by Crouch and Kohn as to why grades are not only useless, but damaging to learning. Even if we ignored that for a moment, how can teachers grade a student’s learning if we don’t actually know what we or they are hoping to achieve, let alone how to measure it?

So what feedback will improve student learning?
I’m not arguing for a kumbaya, sit-around-the-campfire and sing all kids praises regardless of effort. I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t measure success or attempt to measure a learning program’s effectiveness. Some argue that these days, we’re overly politically correct, praise kids too often and are setting our future generations up for failure but taking away things such as competition and opportunities to build resilience. I’m not suggesting we scrap ‘grades’ and reports and replace them with gold stars for all. I do believe, however, that teachers need to actively give their students real feedback – Feedback that report grades or exam scores do not provide.

Many ‘pro-graders’ argue that grades do give ‘feedback’ to teachers, students, parents, schools and systems are about how kids are going with their learning. I suppose they do somewhat, however as Ken Robinson has mentioned, we assess learner success “across a very narrow spectrum of achievement”. Curriculum documents essentially provide teachers with a whole repertoire of skills and understandings that their students are expected to master. That’s what we assess against. That’s what we use to assign grades. That’s the feedback we give.

I’ve mentioned John Hattie in a previous blog post, in regards to his work on “effect sizes” in relation to “feedback”. Long story short, I don’t see reports/grades anywhere on his list of factors which improve student learning outcomes. A few factors are sort of related, such as “Student Self-Reported Grades” which states that a student’s expectations of their own learning and the push for them to exceed those expectations, “Formative Evaluation” which basically refers to the assessment used to inform teaching and learning, and “Feedback” information for teacher and more importantly, the student, on where they’re going, how they’re going and where to next. Note that this last factor does not mean feedback given to a parent about what their kid has done at school for the last six months! Here, Hattie says that feedback (not grades!) “leads to increased effort, motivation or engagement to reduce the discrepancy between current status and the goal, it can lead to alternative strategies to understand the material, it confirm to the student that they are correct or incorrect, it can indicate that more information is available or needed, it can point to directions that the students could pursue, and it can lead to restructuring understandings” (*pp2-3).

This research has shown that descriptive feedback, which conveys information on how one performs the task and details ways to overcome difficulties, was far more effective than evaluative feedback, which simply informed students about how well they did and, consequently, carried a connotation of social comparison without giving any guidelines on how to improve” (^p32). Further, “receiving a grade was also generally associated with lower self-efficacy and more negative affect” (^p33).

Although they’ve been around since the 1700s, it might be time to give grades the flick. In fact, the fact that they’ve been around for so long is probably even more of a reason to get rid of them. If anyone is able to give me some arguments for grades that out-way the downsides I’ve discussed, I’m more than happy to hear your side!

This has been my longest post to date, so thankyou for sticking with it – If you stayed until the end! 🙂

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Some good links relating to this topic:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/chris-crouch/grades-do-more-harm-than-_b_4190907.html?ncid=edlinkusaolp00000003&ir=Education
http://danhaesler.com/2014/01/20/are-the-smartest-kids-also-the-saddest/
http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/fdtd-g.htm
http://www.alfiekohn.org/teaching/tcag.htm
http://education.qld.gov.au/staff/development/performance/resources/readings/power-feedback.pdf
•(*)hhttp://www.education.auckland.ac.nz/webdav/site/education/shared/hattie/docs/formative-and-summative-assessment-(2003).pdf
•(^)http://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/RR-08-30.pdf

Image source: http://hardik.practutor.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/BadGradeClipArt.jpg

Student Reports: More Worthless Than a White Crayon

A teacher’s take on student reports… and why they are a waste of my time!

So, I’m here at my laptop (sitting on my bed with coffee and Oreos on my bedside table), hammering away at my keyboard at a million keystrokes-per-minute, trying to make a dent in my students’ end-of-year reports. I suspect all Australian teachers are busy doing much the same this weekend, and last weekend, and next weekend, and after school most nights for the next couple of weeks! I’m taking a quick break to punch out this post, wondering why the heck am I wasting soooooo much time on these worthless things?

Let me give just 3 reasons why they a waste of my time, and need I say more.

1) Student reports do not improve student learning

This one is obvious, is it not? Are there any parents out there who would actually say, “I get a report from my child’s teacher twice a year, and that piece of paper helps my child learn and achieve more!” Of course not, but let me cite some research just to come off more professional. If you haven’t heard of New Zealander (now living in Melbourne) John Hattie or heard of his work on “effect sizes” I urge you to look him up. Long story short, I don’t see reports anywhere on his list of factors which improve student learning outcomes. A few factors are sort of related, such as “Student Self-Reported Grades” which states that a student’s expectations of their own learning and the push for them to exceed those expectations improves their learning, “Formative Evaluation” which basically refers to the assessment used to inform teaching and learning, and “Feedback” information for teacher and more importantly the student, on where they’re going, how they’re going and where to next*. Note that this last factor does not mean feedback given to a parent about what their kid has done at school for the last six months!

2) Student reports take a teacher’s time away from the things that matter

Consider the point above, now consider how much time teachers spend writing reports. Let’s conservatively say the average Primary School teacher spends an hour per child on their report, twice a year, with an average class size of 25. Now consider how those 50 hours could have been better spent planning teaching and developing brilliant learning experiences for their students, collecting resources, researching curriculum and pedagogy and so on. Just think of what a teacher could do to improve their pupils’ learning outcomes, if those 50 hours were returned to them!

 3) Student reports need to be so politically correct and full of jargon that parents can barely decipher what their child can actually do

 Aside from the fact that any good parent already knows their child – duh – and is very likely to know their child better than their teacher anyway – duh – I don’t believe that reports accurately convey information about a child’s learning. At my school, for example, we are not allowed to say that a child “can” do something or “is able to” to do something – what the? We can’t say that a child “needs to” improve in a certain area, rather we have to say that their “future learning may be to…”. We can’t make subjective comments or say anything about their personality or personal attributes. Comments now need to be objective, specific, measurable and data-backed. Boring. PC. Useless.

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 *Some of Hattie’s work:
Hattie, J. 2009. Visible learning: A synthesis of over 800 meta-analyses relating to achievement.
Hattie, J. 2003. Who says formative assessment matters: Formative and summative interpretations of assessment information.
Hattie, J. 2003. Distinguishing expert teachers from novice and experienced teachers: Teachers make a difference.