Whatever happened to …

… handwritten report cards?

Thanks to Andy Forgrave for the idea for this.

I’ve talked to a lot of educators who have left the classroom for one reason or another about their regrets and their responses typically have been “I miss the kids”.  After all, they’re what keep us young while, at the same time, age us.

Oddly enough, I have never had anyone say that they missed doing report cards.

Could there be a sheet of paper or a card that means so much to students and parents?

I’ll admit to always enjoying most of my education and generally doing well in every thing I ever studied.  It was always the day of reckoning when the report came home and I had to show it to my father at supper.  I still remember comments like A?  Why didn’t you get A+?  99%?  What did you do wrong?  I took this learned parenting skill and applied it to my own kids.  I don’t know that they appreciated it any more than I did.  Deep down though, I knew that my dad was proud of me.

Those report cards were always handwritten and usually came with the great advice “Good work”.  I don’t ever recall a “Doug was a pleasure to have in class” though.  Later, I was to learn that that comment should never appear on a report card.  Somehow that made it easier to swallow because the omission seems to imply that “Doug was a PITA”, which I have no doubt was probably true.

Secondary school was a continuation.  My most memorable report card was, again, handwritten in Grade 13.  In preparation for university, I had taken the requisite 6 courses – 3 Mathematics, 3 Sciences, but then had thrown in English because someone had convinced me that you can never have enough Great Gatsby or learning to write.  Mathematics and Science marks were high – I don’t recall how high but I do remember my English mark – 60%.  Maybe that explains this blog.

University was interesting.  Report cards were never given to you; they were mailed.  They were matter of fact – you took this course, you got this.  It was a mixture of numeric marks or letter grades depending upon the Faculty offering the course.  There was no easy right of appeal; I guess the logic was that you were grown up and got what you deserved.  Unlike elementary and secondary school where my parents always went to Parent/Teacher nights, totally understanding the mark and my learning or lack of it was never a communication with the professor moment.  You got what you got.

The Faculty of Education was completely different.  There was the formal report card, of course, that contained the matter of fact important number or letter.  But, the reports generated by associate teachers where I taught their classes for a couple of weeks were completely handwritten and contained great anecdotes and pieces of advice.  They were the best I’d ever had and really did what they were supposed to do – make me reflect and grow as a teacher.

It was a puzzle to be solved when I landed a job.  Unlike other schools where report cards were circulated with students or via course for handwritten marks and comments, we were one of the first to have electronic report cards.  In our mailboxes, we received “Mark Entry Sheets” where we were expected to enter the final mark and then select one appropriate comment to go along with it.  I always had this nagging desire to use comment #7 which was “Bien Fait” but resisted it.  I did always send home my own personal invitation to all parents to join me for a parent/teacher discussion and I followed the school advice to make the telephone call home to parents where I was going to assign a failing grade to a report card.  Fortunately, I always had great students and I can only recall having to make that phone call just a couple of times when I taught Grade 9 Mathematics.  I often wondered – why didn’t we call the parents of the students who did really well?

Then, it was off to a wonderful job working with educators trying to embrace technology.  I thought I’d seen it all when it came to report cards.  I’d seen handwritten; I’d seen computer reporting.  What else could there be?

Generally, I was welcome in any of the schools that were in the district – EXCEPT – during the times leading into reporting periods.  It wasn’t normally a problem with secondary school but certainly I wasn’t welcome in elementary schools at those times.  As I found out, these report cards were all handwritten and it wasn’t just a mark and a comment.  It was a mark and then a short story.  And these professionals were really serious about this.  Then the discussion became an elementary/secondary one.  “We do real report cards and don’t just pick from a list.”  That really hurt.  I took pride in choosing the proper comment from the list.

Could it get any worse?

Well, yes, it could.

Let’s further pick on the elementary panel and make all their report cards electronic.  Make it so, Doug.

It was too late to go back to my own classroom but, seriously, how hard could it be?  The Ministry of Education had designed a new report format and dictated how they were to be completed.  And, they had commissioned a province wide initiative created with Filemaker Pro (this is where Andy comes in).  We didn’t have enough computers available for teachers to have it done at school so people were buying home computers like crazy and I was supporting this as well.   The first revision not only required that teachers enter a grade and check off appropriate boxes per subject area but were expected to type, for each student and each subject, Strengths, Weaknesses, and Next Steps.  Our implementation rolled out a few important things –

  • addressing the concepts and the philosophy of the record card and reporting
  • file sharing for rotary subjects (which in this case was by diskette) and file compatibility between the Macintosh and Windows
  • getting a copy of the report card into everyone’s hands in a timely fashion – this lead to me creating a Teachers’ Essentials CD-ROM with things like that on it and making copies for every teacher in the system
  • teaching about Filemaker Pro – for many the first serious application that they’d ever used and for others the concept that things could be saved without having to click a “Save” command was foreign
  • sharing comments among those teaching the same grade/subject – “How can I say this?”
  • recovering files accidentally deleted
  • instructing how to copy files from diskette to hard drive and back – later this became a task of sharing via our email system
  • making sure that everyone had the latest and greatest version of the report card

The whole process monopolized my life at reporting time to be sure.  It was also part of our new teacher induction program.  Even today, I still get questions at every report card time even though another solution has been put into place.

Interestingly, I guess a good job was done.

Nothing breeds success like success.

Early Years’ teachers were still using pen and paper for their own report cards.  My support person was a master with Filemaker Pro and, between the two of us, developed our own Early Years’ Report Card.  Secondary school teachers had a number of solutions in place and we harmonized that by licensing a product for the entire board and enjoyed the same success although it still required a great deal of effort to get everyone on the same page.

I never much enjoyed doing my own report cards and supporting others wasn’t a walk in the park either.  It never really was a highlight that I enjoyed especially, as any teacher will tell you, it’s a real drain on time.  I’d much rather communicate with parents by having them show up and have their child lead them through a portfolio of what they’d completed in class.  The more that you deal with report cards, and especially electronic ones, the more you realize that it’s a business process that stands on its own, external to working with people, which I suspect is a concept foreign to most teachers.  Add to that the verbiage required for the constructions of the comments.  It’s stressful.

But it’s a necessary evil in our school system where grades, subjects, and the length of a school term/semester/year still rule.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  • Do you have any good report card stories?
  • Have you ever “lost” your work?  Share your story there.
  • In society, the resume, education, and work experience rule.  Could we still survive if we didn’t have report cards to provide some of this information?
  • Have you ever bought a computer or upgraded because you “needed” it for report cards?
  • As a parent, is the process tainted for your own child’s comments since you know how they’re done?

This whole Sunday series of “Whatever happened to …” is available here.  How about taking a walk along memory lane with me?  Got an idea, share it on this padlet.

12 thoughts on “Whatever happened to …

  1. This was a real walk down memory lane for me, Doug, because I totally remember these report cards. It was one of your questions at the end that triggered a question of my own (and this thinking below). No matter if the report cards are handwritten or on a computer, do the format of them have to impact on our personalization? I still remember my Grade 2 teacher that hand wrote my report card and used specific examples from class to really paint picture of what I knew and what I needed to focus on next. I think about this now when I write my report card comments. Yes, my space is limited, and sometimes I need to get creative with wording to make everything fit, but as I proofread each report card, I look to see if it gives me a true picture of that child. If not, I make changes. This was as true for me when I taught Grade 6, as it is for me now when I teach Kindergarten. Just because there is a comment bank, doesn’t mean I have to use it (and I choose not to). I think that Growing Success would support this choice. I don’t know if the high school report cards allow for such flexibility in comments, but I hope that they do.

    As I proofread this comment of mine, I can’t help but think about the comment you made on “why don’t we call the students who did really well?” Can’t we? What’s stopping us? In the past 5-6 years (or so), I’ve started telling all parents what to expect on the report cards (good, bad, or otherwise). We talk about this before the report cards go home (usually as I write them). This gives us a chance to really connect and discuss next steps (beyond the few lines I can add on a report card). Sometimes these discussions have even led to me changing the next steps to reflect our conversation. As a high school teacher, I can imagine that you would have WAY more than my 30 students, but what if the students and teachers worked together to email parents about their strengths, weaknesses, and next steps prior to report cards going home? Could this self-reflection option be a way to connect with larger groups of parents and even have the “child’s voice” on the report card? I know some teachers that have done something similar before, and I think it has tremendous potential. What do others think? How else do people creatively problem solve to work around high numbers and space restrictions to still personalize comments and communicate well with parents? (I think your post inspired some other questions of my own.🙂 )

    Thanks for the Sunday morning thinking!
    Aviva

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  2. Thank you for the long, thoughtful comment, Aviva. Of course, by today’s standards, we wouldn’t hesitate to call, email, or otherwise highlight success to parents. We’ve come so far from my first years of teaching. You ask good questions but I had to smile. My classroom most certainly predated email being as ubiquitous as it is today.

    As I mentioned on Twitter, I have this vision of your report card comments containing deep philosophical questions about learning directed at the parents!

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  3. Thanks for your reply, Doug, and the comments you shared on Twitter too. Even though we wouldn’t hesitate to “call, email, or otherwise highlight success to parents,” we are always reminded most about informing parents of students that are struggling. That said, I’ve often heard that “report cards shouldn’t be a surprise,” and I think that this should go for the good things too.

    As for questions, I haven’t asked any on report cards yet, but you have me thinking. I remember an inservice on descriptive feedback, where I was taught about the value of a question for this type of feedback. Would this also hold true for parents and next steps? I wonder if there is a place for questions on report cards. Hmmm …

    Aviva

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  4. I actually could see that:

    What would happen if ate breakfast?
    What would happen if read more?
    What would happen if wrote more?
    What would happen if laughed more?
    What would happen if took a stronger leadership role?
    What would happen if wasn’t so rushed in the morning?

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  5. Loved the history lesson, Doug. As a student, I remember the carbon copy, hand written reports I used to get. They too had simple statements, like “good effort”, or in my case, “must concentrate more”.

    When I broke into the profession, we had just embraced FileMaker and eTeacher was making its entry too. I can remember being a traditionalist by sticking to FileMaker while others were opting for the latter. Seems eTeacher won that battle. I didn’t have too many crises during report card time but, having lost a paper or two during my university days, I learned to over-save: one file to the desktop, another uploaded to First Class, and usually three disks. Paranoia, I guess. Since moved on to web-based report cards, I think crashes and corrupt files have subsided but network connectivity on report card PA days was the new problem. Seems to have been fixed though.

    Overall, I’ve found reports to become too industrialized, dry. The current report card looks like a court document, very sterile and uninviting. The expectations for the comments varies from board to board and even school to school it seems. Then there are those nit-picky arguments over how something should sound, or practise vs. practise, etc. I once got threatened with reprimand because I refused to put a comma where it didn’t have to be. Can you believe that? I only ever enjoy the homeroom section because I can be straightforward and honest, not subject to varying expectations (though I still have those battles on occasion). Anyway, I suspect – and no research to back this up, really – that most comments are ignored by students and parents alike. Seems grades are the only thing they’re interested in and I don’t see questioning parents looking at said comment when wondering why a grade has fallen or fails to meet their expectations. The hours sunk into preparing this document hardly equal the attention it’s given by the recipients in my experience and opinion.

    Again, I look at Finland where the report card is simple because teachers want their parents to come in and discuss it, which they do. I’d sooner spend time with a parent discussing the progress in person than making some institutionalized document that largely gets ignored. A former colleague of mine had this suggestion, which I’m all in favour of: simple report card with some indication of progress, no comments; then, set aside an hour each day (after school for one week after the report goes home) for parents to drop in and discuss their child’s progress. If only…

    Thanks for the post and reading my rant. Hope all is well with you!
    (This was meant to be a short reply but once the ball started rolling…😄)

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  6. The “history” of report cards in general is always interesting to me…. I enjoyed your sharing about various aspects here, Doug.

    I still have my “associate teachers” written reports too, yet each teaching practicum had to be summed up with either “satisfactory or unsatisfactory”… yikes!

    I know you have already read this older related post of mine, but sharing it here again more for the good responses and feedback it got from others: https://sheilaspeaking.wordpress.com/2015/04/02/report-cards-cycles-of-change/

    I enjoyed the read of the further responses here too!

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  7. Carla Matos says:

    Hi Doug,
    Thanks to Aviva, I found your blog because I don’t always make connections on Twitter. Not too long ago I found my handwritten grade one report card from the 1960s. I was surprised to read that the comments had some similarities to what I might write today. Comments included what I did well and what I was learning. I don’t recall if next steps were on there but do know I was surprised at the similarities of comment content. Even when we think things have changed the basics are still there.

    As for todays report cards I have strong opinions to share! First of all, I pour my heart and soul into completing them. While I follow the prescribed pattern of describing what was done, how well it was done using the corresponding language descriptors and next steps somehow they just don’t seem to say what I really want to say or what would be most meaningful to parents. Sometimes what I really want to say needs to be said in person with caring tact. I try my best to contact parents before report cards to talk to them personally about their child’s progress.

    Secondly, it takes me about 40 hours of work to get them done from start to finish including evaluations of grades. Thankfully we do get one day per report card term to work on them at school which is helpful in completing them.

    heres how report card writing goes for me: work at school, plan lessons for which I still need marks for completing report cards, go home. do some regular school work ( lesson planning and marking) and then hit report card writing for at least a couple of hours. For two week ends in a row I am doing report cards all day and into the evening both saturday and sunday. The result: great report cards at the expense of my teaching energy.

    I would much rather focus those 2-3 weeks on continuing to plan great learning opportunities for my students and maintaining my energy levels so that I do not lose patience with my students. It is during report writing that I find myself warning my students that I am tired and grumpy so be prepared for my less than normal amount of patience.

    Lastly, I wonder how much my efforts are appreciated or are even needed in order to make meaningful reports. This has caused me to strive for more balance between report writing and spending time and energy on what really matters: teaching my students.

    And one other frustration of late is that given the focus on supporting learning through inquiry and on developing growth mind sets I feel that the current reports are no longer a good fit for 21st century learning. Why does a grade one student trying his/her best to read need to see a D on the report? why does a struggling math student who is putting in quality effort need to see a D? This does not support a growing mind.

    I am hopefully anticipating changes to Ontario’s grading system because I think we need to head there at least in the elementary system.

    Thanks for the report card blog!

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  8. I’m glad that you found the blog, Carla, and I hope that you’ll be back. I enjoyed reading your personal report card philosophy. I completely agree with your questioning of a student seeing a particular grade on the report card. It’s so much part of our system – post-secondary entry requirements, bursaries, awards, etc. But, if we really believe in the notion of the growth mindset, it does become difficult to rationalize.

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  9. Coming to this one late, Doug, as I’ve been out of wifi for a long stretch. Your question about losing data brought me right back to that stretch where we were using eteacher, which is, without question, my most unfavourite stretch of my report card history. Agh. As the person in the building who wore the tech hat, I held a lot of hands (okay, including my own) through the process. I think I only wept once because everything had disappeared, but I will never forget a friend showing up at our house because his spouse had lots a weekend’s work, and he knew that we would understand that it was better not to be at home while that got worked through. As someone who’s taught and lived in rural communities, I’ve also spent weekends at school, because that was the reliable wifi, once we switched to online reporting.

    Thanks for the memories!🙂

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  10. Oh, and as a parent of a kiddo going into Grade 10, please don’t start me on the difference between elementary and secondary reports. My child actually laughs at me when we look at his.

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