Analyzing Ontario’s fall “progress report” a year later

I am sure Ontario parents already know that the new Ontario progress report has absolutely nothing to do with students and parents and everything to do with making life easier for teachers. In fact, the spin and talking points to explain and defend the change is some of the most contradictory and bizarre I have ever read.

From the Ministry of Education website:

Here, for example, are some selected quotes and examples from the Education Ministry site

(1) On why the Ontario government eliminated a report card — 

For the past decade, elementary teachers used a provincial report card three times per year. Why has the government changed policy so that teachers now use a progress report card in the fall and a provincial report card two times per year?

Good question! Actually, there were three report cards a year for decades as far back as the 1950s when I was in elementary school. Why the change now? Well, check out this Elementary Teachers Federation of Ontario site (ETFO) on the topic and it becomes very clear that the first report card of the year was replaced with a progress report because the union demanded it from the McGuinty government and they got exactly what they wanted. The key reason out of all the reasons given? ETFO wanted teachers to have a decreased workload in the fall! So, why doesn’t the Ministry simply say that?

(2) On why the teachers’ unions wanted the change —

For several years, the government has heard from education stakeholders that the methods teachers use to communicate with parents about the achievement of their children in the elementary grades could be improved. We believe that our new policy which introduces a fall progress report card and a revised provincial elementary report card will improve the methods teachers use for communicating with parents….”

So rather than simply admit that teachers have a lot to do in the fall and doing a progress report would help them concentrate on getting their curriculum firmly underway, they spin the issue like a top. Stakeholders? As I wrote in my comments above under item (1), the stakeholders were from ETFO and the other teachers’ unions. In fact, the very idea that a progress report with check marks and a few comments would “improve” communicating to parents is insulting to them as stakeholders. 

(3) On what the progress report is purported to evaluate —

The fall progress report card places a strong emphasis on the development of students’ learning skills and work habits. Students’ achievement of six learning skills and habits will be shown on the front page of the progress report card. These are: (1) Responsibility, (2) Organization, (3) Independent Work, (4) Collaboration, (5) Initiative, and (6) Self-Regulation. The development of these skills and habits will be reported as “excellent”, “good”, “satisfactory” or “needs improvement” and a large space is provided for teacher comments about students’ strengths and areas for improvement.”

The reality is that evaluting interpersonal skills and work habits, which are totally subjective skills and ways of behaving, are actually harder to recognize in a short period of time than academic progress. In other words, if classroom teachers can know whether or not a child is organized and has initiative that early in the year, surely, they can also know enough about their academic progress to give them actual grades.

Then, there is the excellent, good, satisfactory, needs improvement, which has been a bone of contention for years. In fact, I can remember having to use that system in the 1980s. Parents didn’t like it then and I doubt they like it now. Why? Because it doesn’t tell them how their child is performing. Nor, does it tell them how their child is performing in relation to his or her peers. When we read A, B, C, D or F, we know what those letters mean. So, let me suggest parents just figure excellent is an A, good is a B, satisfactory is a C and needs improvement is what is left.

Moreover, while on the topic of anecdotal versus letter grades, I have a message for today’s educators and policy makers. If they are afraid of offending parents for politically correct reasons or hurting a child’s self-esteem by using those types of words to define progress,  they are not doing them any favours. Why? Because, they sure learn in a hurry what A, B, C and D mean when they go on to college or university. Then, it hits hard. They also find out what those words mean when they are evaluated on the job. No “needs improvement” in that context that is for sure. So, getting them used to reality earlier would save that trauma when it comes — and for most it will come.

(4) On the claims that schools will “now” have rich parent interviews — 

Ministry policy places an emphasis on teachers using the progress report card to conduct rich discussions and proactive interviews or conferences with parents and/or students in the fall to help establish a positive tone for the remainder of the year. In addition, spaces are provided on the progress report card for individual board design to reflect local conferencing/interviewing practices, vision statements, or other information about the school community.”

Even in the 1970s and 80s we had fall interviews with parents. Why the spin now about having “rich discussions and proactive conferences?” Especially since educators have worked closely with parents for decades. More spin and turning policy makers into pretzels just to try to defend a lesser progress report.  

(5) On the conflicting rationale for a fall progress report —

Early in the fall, students have just begun their learning in the subjects and teachers do not have substantial evidence to accurately assign a grade or mark. However, in the fall, teachers do have enough information to report to parents whether or not they are making progress.”

Now this talking point has got to be the best in terms of spin. On the one hand, the Ministry of Education is saying they changed from a regular report card in the fall to a progress report because they didn’t yet have enough evidence of how well a student was performing. Yet, on the other hand, they “do have enough information to report to parents whether or not they are making progress.” I mean, they either have enough information or they don’t. How is it that for decades they had enough information and now, all of a sudden, they don’t.

Conclusions:

My complaint about all this is the deviousness involved in the defense of the reduced reporting process. I also don’t like the fact that the comments in the progress reports are, far too often, not personalized. Do I blame teachers? No, I don’t. Even my other post called “Comments for Dummies” was written tongue in cheek and based on that series of yellow books — not that teachers were dummies. The reality is that the majority of teachers just do what they are told, work very hard  and want only the best for their students.

Rather, my complaint is directed at the spinmeisters who are diminishing parents with their nonsensical spin — both in the Ontario Ministry of Education and the various teachers’ unions. Moreover, after a year of reading about this change, I am not even sure it has reduced a teacher’s workload.

In any event, after all is said and done, even if the new fall progress report is a sham, will children and parents be worse off with that one report in the fall and two main report cards in the winter and spring? No they won’t, as long as parents are proactive and assertive and ask very specific questions in parent-teacher interviews and conferences.

Meaning, the crux of the matter is that it is up to parents to make sure they hold their child’s teacher accountable. So when they hear the words “satisfactory” or “needs improvement,” they need to ask exactly how their child needs to improve within specific subject areas, what the teacher plans to do to help their child improve and what they can do at home.

5 thoughts on “Analyzing Ontario’s fall “progress report” a year later

  1. You make some good points that parents needs to bring good and relevant questions to the table when discussing their child’s academic success and areas for growth. The progress report allows more time to be spent discussing these questions at interviews rather than past habits of parents asking to see a mark by mark breakdown that created the letter grade or percentage. In addition, the requirements that individual letter grades or percentage marks for media literacy, drama, dance, physical education and health education means that it is not possible to teach and evaluate all the subjects to develop an appropriate letter grade within the first two months of school. The progress report is similar to high schools where students receive an unofficial mid-term mark , parents and teachers discuss and then the final mark for a subject is assigned later on in the year. I like being able to meet with parents and discuss the 7 or 8 months that lay ahead rather than focus all the attention on the first 2 or 3 months of school.

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  2. The thing is Matt, we were giving official fall interviews long ago. In fact, just as now, in the 1970’s we had one whole day or more in late October for a parent-interview day. And, as many interviews as we wanted to do at other times. You write as though that is a new idea.

    And, this is a former teacher you are talking to. Of course, you can have an idea of how a child is doing in any particular subject at this point. A snapshot? Absolutely, but you can still tell. I mean, all it takes is a compentency-based review-type test or something similar like a finished piece of art work or a project. Plus, if a student has a journal or evaluation folder, they can even keep track themselves. Unless, of course, it is full of “authentic” testing that doesn’t measure anything objective.

    In other words, what I am objecting to is what I call “fuzzifying” student evalution.

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  3. Matt says:
    “In addition, the requirements that individual letter grades or percentage marks for media literacy, drama, dance, physical education and health education means that it is not possible to teach and evaluate all the subjects to develop an appropriate letter grade within the first two months of school. ”
    I am in the midst of these right now, and I have to say that the government did not really decrease my workload, it still takes me hours and hours. I agree with not having enough information to give authentic letter grades in the above mentioned subjects/ strand – when you think of it, you may have had at most 6 drama classes, not counting the ones that were cancelled as a result of a field trip, school assembly, or a pressing behaviour issue that needed to be discussed with the whole class, etc. That said, I could easily assign letter grades in Math and Language – as long as I didn’t have to report on individual strands. I think parents would appreciate this much more than the vague and indeterminate “progressing well”. Many parents also, see the “progressing well” check as equivalent to an B, so their child either must be doing something wrong, or could do something else to attain the top level. The way I explain it to them is that PW is either an A or a B and that PVW is almost certainly an A. Because I want to be accurate, I don’t check PVW unless I am pretty close to positive they will get an A.

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  4. Grade 5/6 teacher. Thanks for such a thorough reply. When I was teaching Grade 5/6 at the end of the 70s (moved into the secondary panel in the early 80s before I took a leave and went to grad school) there were the same interruptions — field trips, assemblies, you name it, yet we still managed a letter grade in late October/early November. Usually Christmas program rehearsal interruptions came after that period. Of course, the end of the year was even worse with field days, home games, etc.

    Even at the university level, you know how a student is performing very quickly. Some, who think they should get an A, for example, don’t understand that getting an A or PVW, means you have done absolutely everything right. A “B” or PW is almost all right but with recommended improvements or additions if it is a project. However, in those days, a C was average. Not any more.

    I think in the nearly two decades that I taught university I gave a C average no more than ten times because my students were all in the four year concurrent B.A./B.Ed program (or M.Ed program)– which required a B to stay in the program. In fact, if someone was getting a C I always told them that they needed to do a make up essay/project to bring up their mark. I didn’t believe in surprises at any level.

    Now, the reason I mention my university experience is that it is very important for kids to learn what those letter grades stand for, otherwise it is a huge shock. Remember too that university/college mid terms for university students are going on right now. Meaning, if a prof has to be able to identify a grade this early in the “credit” year, elementary and secondary teachers should be able to as well.

    Anyway, standardized testing should not take as much time out of a year as it seems to do. Parents need to understand that aspect — that the more time used for testing, the less time for learning new skills and knowledge.

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