Imagine you walk into your doctor’s office, ready for the follow-up appointment where the results of your diagnostic tests are shared with you and your prognosis is revealed. You are a little anxious and uncertain, but you are confident you are in good hands. You understand that this appointment is intended to communicate information that may lead to future healthcare processes. You expect that you may need to shift your diet or your exercise and that you may need further tests or supports from additional health care personnel. You also know that there is a system in place that will take care of you the best way they know how, so in spite of your uncertainty, you feel confident you will leave that office knowing what you need to know.
Now imagine your doctor walks in, sits down, looks you in the eye, and says, “138 over 88 and 14.” The doctor then stands up and leaves. How would you feel? What would you wonder? You may feel confused and dismissed. You may wonder what exactly those numbers mean and what they indicate. You know they checked your blood pressure and they tested your glucose. You know they took blood and labeled each vial with some kind of test. You mostly want to know whether or not you should worry. You may be tempted to stop your doctor before he or she leaves and ask, “Am I okay? Do I need help? Are those numbers within a normal range? Is there someone else I should be talking to? How is my health overall?” It would be normal to want to clarify the meaning of the symbols just shared because, at the end of the day, we want to know whether we need to make decisions and take actions. We don’t expect to understand everything about how those symbols were determined. We trust that the lab personnel and the doctors know what they are doing. However, we want to be involved in our health care, in decisions that affect us, and we should expect nothing less.
Now translate that scenario to an educational context.
Parents are aware that report cards will be shared a few times each year (the checkup). They know those documents are intended to communicate the results of learning assessment, and families anticipate being told how their children are doing. They accept that their children are in good hands and that the purpose of reporting is communication between home and school. They feel confident in the system that is in place to take care of their children’s needs, and they expect to put down that report card after reading it and know what they need to know. They expect the prognosis and guidance about steps to take to support their children in developing and maintaining a healthy education.
Imagine they open the report card and see symbols: numbers, letters, and codes, like 88 or B- or (D) Developing. They feel confused. They scan the comments to see if they offer clarity, and they come in contact with phrases like, “I appreciate having your child in my class,” or “Great effort!” They are unsure whether the appreciation and effort actually translates into proficiency. Is the teacher saying these things because she wants me to know my child is trying, despite a lack of success? Is my son offering answers? Studying? Is my daughter learning what she needs to? Does this symbol represent learning at the end of teaching, or is the class not finished with the unit? Are practice scores included or not? Will these scores get better without my help? Does the teacher have this figured out, or is he trying to tell me to be concerned?
I sense that in most instances, parents really believe teachers are knowledgeable professionals. I imagine many parents are aware that teachers assess students carefully. I suspect many of them do not wish to know how each aspect of learning was measured or what processes were undertaken to capture and diagnose successes and challenges in the day-to-day life of the classroom, because they trust teachers and believe this information should inform an educator’s work as a professional. But what they do want to know is whether or not they should be worried. They may be asking themselves similar questions as in the health example: “Does my child need help? How is her learning overall? Is it within the range of expected learning? Is there someone else I should be talking to? How is my child actually doing?”
In education, there is much discourse about reporting.
We fervently debate which symbols to employ—percentages, letter grades, alpha codes, portfolio comments, anecdotal records. We search and search for the perfect way to communicate the very complex learning that happens in our schools. We insist that if we just get this part right, parents will stop asking questions. We believe that the right code will settle things once and for all. But, just like in the health example, a symbol (number, letter) cannot possibly communicate, on its own, the information we need to share. A doctor cannot hand over a page of diagnostic results and expect patients to glean whether or not they should be concerned. It would be ridiculous to expect this to be the case. Similarly, sharing a grade book filled with symbols is simply not enough information. What we really need from doctors and teachers is honesty. We need them to level with us. We need them to look us in the eye and tell us whether or not we need to worry. We need them to help us navigate the results of assessments and help us make good decisions that will help us in our shared goal.
I am convinced that we have been debating the wrong thing. I think that what we need to do, as a profession, is figure out the best way to look families and students in the eye and have the conversations—about successes, certainly, but also the conversations about actions that must be taken in order to see growth. We need to level with parents, using the results we have gathered and the knowledge we have, not only about learning but about their children. We have to be honest—and we have to be hopeful. Because the beautiful thing about these reporting conversations is that we know how to help our learners. We know what needs to happen, what decisions need to be made and what actions must be taken. We are a profession that has many answers, and just like the medical profession, we would expect no less. Let’s start talking about reporting as a system of communication. Let’s continue to share information in a wide variety of ways. Let’s send student work home and share portfolios. Let’s set goals and engage in conversations. And let’s be honest. Only then can we move toward growth.