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Report cards failing

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Premier Greg Selinger has heard from parents that decoding their children's report cards is tougher than learning the ABCs. And pity the parents whose children have changed schools in the span of a year -- they may wonder if teachers are talking about the same student.

The NDP government that tossed standardized testing out the classroom window has promised to bring in standardized report cards by the 2012/13 school year. No more jargon, just clear language about how Johnny is doing in school.

That's a useful thing: Unlike some other jurisdictions, the Manitoba Education Department has taken a hand's-off approach to what a report card should look like. Hence a wide array of reporting styles, varying from simple, one-line percentage grades for each subject to a broad measurement of whether a child has: not met/met/exceeded expectations for the grade level, across a number of strands within each subject. Your child may be doing very well (level 4; the highest) or not so well (level 2; above failing), but deciphering the degree to which a student is struggling or motoring ahead is a bit of a puzzle, especially when parent-teacher interviews allot 12 minutes of discussion about why Johnny is doing well in math and phys-ed and can sort of read.

Over the years, education assessment has veered widely away from the hard numbers of tests and scores. (But for Grade 12 provincial exams in a couple of subjects, Manitoba no longer measures student achievement across the province.) But as the push to make assessment reflect the facets of a student's learning took hold, the language of grading became opaque: A report card that says your child "meets grade expectations independently" is difficult to translate when parents have no idea how much of the material a child must master to meet grade expectation. But a report card that says whether a child consistently/frequently/occasionally, or does not "meet curricular outcomes" is confounding.

The obscurity in language, and lack of consistency across schools in Manitoba's report cards means that a change of classes, or even schools, can alter a child's assessment dramatically. How can a child score as average in a number of strands in Grade 6, but then turn out to be an A student in Grade 7?

Education Minister Nancy Allan is to be congratulated for setting her department on the task of clarity. She should also ensure that in striking uniformity among assessments, that parents, who deal more in practicalities and less in theory, have a good grasp of what teachers are saying.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 14, 2010 A10

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