Report Writing Gods Must be Crazy

It’s that time of year again. Report time.  Twice each year we spend weeks dissecting everything we’ve done in the preceding terms, hoping and praying that we’ve done enough to get every child to (at least) a C grade, knowing that this probably isn’t the case.   It’s a time when the stark reality of ‘assessing against the achievement standards’ comes into view and our hearts break a little for each student who we know has worked so hard, but who will still receive a grade that has a descriptor ‘basic’ or ‘limited’.   Combine that with ‘distance learning’ and we have a recipe for a situation that will likely see us sitting on the couch sobbing into our non-standard sized glass of wine.

Report time is also a time where we might well realise that we haven’t actually taught to the curriculum as well as we thought we did.  We have ALL been in the position of sitting down to grade our students, checking the achievement standard and thinking, “Oh crap. I didn’t actually teach that!”  Sometimes this situation comes into being because we have latched onto a content descriptor and run with it, not planning with enough rigour to ensure a clear line of sight from students, through curriculum and assessment, all the way to reporting.   Other times this happens because we were strapped for time or confused about exactly how to plan with confidence and so we have logged in to our favourite subscription site, downloaded a unit and just whacked it into our programs. Right now, this might also have happened because our entire profession has been tipped on its head and you haven’t had 5 seconds to teach anything properly.

Now I’ve got one word to say to you teachers about those downloadable units. ‘Loose’.  (yep, I did just channel a little bit of Kath Day Knight).   I used to be amazed by how loosely these downloadable units connect to the Australian Curriculum. Now I don’t even expect them to.  If you go down this path, you are in serious danger of not actually teaching your year level requirements at all or if you kind of hit on it, not providing the opportunity for children to reach beyond the routine classroom tasks to achieve the A or B you know they are capable of.

So, what is the answer to this report writing madness?   Well, I’m afraid that my response is going to be a bit boring on one hand and a bit controversial on the other.

Let’s go with controversial first.   The hardest thing for me at report time is stepping out of the positive mindset I have about student progress into the confronting land of grades.  We spend all semester excitedly exclaiming about how proud we are of our year 1 and 2 students who have come to the school year not knowing their sounds who are now reading and writing CVCs on their own. We fight the feeling that we are useless teachers because 9 year olds are two years behind where they should be to create rigorous and highly effective programs to build success and then, bam! it all comes crashing down in the face of the D or E grade we know we have to give.

My suggestion in these cases is to give the grade (because you have to) and then forget about it. (That’s the controversial bit). If at all possible, skip the comments relating to the achievement standard detailing what children can’t do.  Instead, fill your students’ reports with lashings of positivity, focusing on the effort that they have put into their learning. Inform parents (in every day language) about the things that their child CAN do and about the growth they have made during the semester. Tell them you are proud of their child. 

But here’s the thing.  NOTHING in a child’s report should come as a surprise to the family of a struggling student.  Your goal is that your regular communication with the family sees them fully informed of their child’s difficulties, what you are doing about it and what they need to do to help at home.  Tell parents up front what their child’s grades will be BEFORE the report goes home.  If necessary, create a separate report for the child to view that doesn’t have the grades in it. Send home the official one (because you have to) but don’t crush your student’s and their family’s spirits with a report that screams, “Surprise! Your kid is waaaay behind and not very smart!”    As a parent myself, I have been highly resentful of the odd unexpected D grade that has come home. My number one question is, “Why wasn’t I told that she was struggling?”

The other thing to remember is that a ‘Pity C’ is actually not helpful.  We feel so bad for students (and let’s face it, pressured by our schools) to not send D and E grades home that it is really easy to find yourself giving a C grade you know, deep down, is not accurate.  C says ‘they are doing OK’. A ‘pity C’ masks the true challenges that a child is having, preventing them from getting the help they need because a parent may not realise that their child is in trouble. Here are some suggestions for comments you could include:

The other aspect of getting report writing under control (the ‘boring’ bit) involves backward design.  If the very mention of backward design (also called backward mapping or backward planning) makes your eyes roll back in your head, never fear!   I’m going to break it down for you and help make the process systematic and user friendly.  For now, though this post is already too long and you have things to do, so I will go into more detail in future posts.   

Remember, this is a crazy time with crazy expectations. Keep focused on what you can control and keep things simple when it comes to reporting. The important thing is to maintain connection with students and celebrate their achievements instead of worrying about what you haven’t been able to cover while students have been learning from home. I’ll bring you more on backward planning and how to keep your sanity during the Semester 1 reporting period next week.

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