Reporting Student Achievement in British Columbia

Report cards will be sent home this Thursday and I’m feeling triumphant.  I have read all the report cards, Individual Education Plans, English language inserts, Resource inserts and in some cases student self assessments and curriculum summaries.  I have asked questions, made comments, suggestions, and signed off on nearly all of them.   They are copied on buff paper to be sent home to parents and copies are ready for each student’s permanent file.  And they are good.  I feel so proud of my teachers and how far we have come as an education system in communicating student learning.  When I was in Elementary school, my Mom use to receive an achievement grade and most often the comment “Carrie is a very conscientious student.”  No need for further discussion.

ThE Ministry of Education in British Columbia mandated that teachers will provide five reports of student achievement to families each school year.  In the Vancouver School District, at least two of those reports must be formal written reports.   At Livingstone Elementary School, these formal written reports are issued at the end of January and the end of June.   The expectation is to include information about student strengths, areas for growth, and how we can work with families support the student in academic and social-emotional learning.  It must also include a sliding scale to indicate how the student is doing in achieving grade level learning outcomes for each subject areas.

My very favourite part of the report card, as both a parent and as a principal, is the opening paragraph.  It was the part I agonized over getting perfect as a teacher when I was writing report cards.  A parent can see their child in a well written opening paragraph.  This opening vignette gives us insight into how the school year is unfolding for the child.  My very compliant daughter made this paragraph easy for her teachers to write.  My headstrong son made it more challenging but readily apparent if he had a teacher that was delighting in his creativity and divergent thinking.  Of course, in some cases COVID-19 has made the developing of rapport between the teacher and the student a challenge.  In person interaction will always be better than online interaction.

Old school report cards were all about achievement.  The “A” was perceived as university entrance, a high paying job, and a charmed life.  We know so much more now about how we can support students so they can create their own version of a charmed life.  We understand that standardized measures of intelligence change over time with increased background knowledge and are not a guarantee of a successful life. 

The work of Howard Gardner expanded our ability to see the many different ways that children can shine.  The work of Carol Dweck helped us to see how a growth mindset can set the stage for new learning.  We want students to be able to identify areas of strength and what they can do to improve the areas requiring more work to develop.   The measure of a good report card is the plan to help students build on their strengths and develop the areas that are not as strong.

Self esteem does not emerge from a sense of someone unconditionally viewing everything you do as perfect.  That is something reserved for loving grandparents.  It comes from the realization that you can do stuff by yourself.  That first paragraph in many report cards includes what students are proud of.  It usually has to do with learning something you’ve worked hard at, whether it is soccer skills, use of a new APP, or learning to read. 

The sliding scale in many ways serves the same purpose as letter grades.  It shows how students are doing in relation to grade level expectations.  The sliding scale has replaced letter grades because it reflects a new kind of thinking.  The goal is to identify areas of strength and those areas requiring repetition, practice, hard work, and possibly adaptations to move learning forward.   

A successful student is a person who is a learner, regardless of age.  A learner asks questions and tries to find answers and new pathways even if it means failing and starting again.  This requires the resilience to try again, as well as the analytical skills to come up with the reason for the fail and a new possibility.  There is no grand prize for learning fastest or achieving perfection.  There is power in believing that with perseverance and initiative, we are able to meet our learning goals. 

My husband and our daughter are the math enthusiasts in our family.  At the dinner table, they would discuss a math problems and alternate solutions.  My son and I would look at each other in amazement that they thought this was captivating.  We didn’t.  And yet in our adult lives, my son and I manage budgets, participate in games requiring math skills, and use math daily in our work.   We both learned that not all things we needed to learn are preferred choice activities.  We figured out that perseverance and commitment to the task at hand was required.  We still opt out of discussions of interesting math problems.  Just don’t get us started on history and politics.

The requirement for additional communications with parents to communicate student learning is an additional bonus to the reporting process in British Columbia.  Conferences, emails, phone calls, and student portfolios provide examples that support the written report cards with specific samples of student self-evaluations, measures of achievement and supports required.  The school website, Twitter, classroom newsletters, curriculum summaries, and blogs are also used at Livingstone Elementary to share learning that is happening at our school.  This provides a very concrete way to involve students in talking about what they have learned, celebrate accomplishments, and develop achievable goals.    

The shifts in reporting practices have been a move to recreate the communication of student learning to families from an event that happens a few times a year into a conversation that happens throughout the year. John Hattie’s research has taught us that children benefit significantly when parents establish and communicate high expectations for student achievement with them.

The Ministry of Education in British Columbia has outlined the process to give parents the information to actively participate in their child’s education. However as with any profound educational change, it is the commitment and efforts of teachers that determine the impact. It is work intensive. It is exhausting. Teacher efforts to help students understand themselves as learners, determine required supports to facilitate further development, and involve parents in the process are what make this process exceptional in British Columbia. Much of it is a labour of love by consummate professionals. Lucky for us.

The Downside of Perfection

My father is a retired neurosurgeon who had a brilliant career.  He was a slave to his work, and he emerged from a little boy who could only speak German when he arrived in a Canada in 1948, to a doctor and published author with status, power, money and privilege.  His dream.

“Genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.”

Thomas Edison

I grew up with my father quoting Thomas Edison at every report card time and littering it through every summer visit and many long-distance phone calls.   Perfection was an imperative for him.  

Aspiring for perfection has some merit.  It can allow a vision to play out in your mind that can bring amazing results and the “big win”.  It can teach a commendable work ethic.  However, the flip side is it can also be debilitating.  My stepmother always recounts the story of sitting down to write letters to our mother in summer.  I would sit down and get my ideas down on the page and have absolutely no concern about spelling errors or a lack of punctuation.  When I first started blogging and she found a spelling error, she commented that I must be SO embarrassed.  I still wasn’t.  I learned that spell-checker doesn’t always work.  My sister, being plagued with being the first born, took hours completing her letter and would have holes in the page from eraser marks.  For her, it was a painful endeavour.

The part that Thomas Edison is missing in his well quoted words, is the part about the intrigue that comes with being fascinated by a question.  For Edison, I believe that this was intuitive knowledge.  He entertained the “What if” questions.  Inquiry was not an attempt to demonstrate genius.  Inquiry was letting his mind dance around the possibilities.  It takes time.  It takes patience.  It takes a belief that you can.  

In education, we frame this process in a myriad of ways:  Creative problem-solving; Deductive reasoning; divergent thinking; the inquiry process; task engagement; daydreaming.  The list goes on.  The recent rewrite of the curriculum in British Columbia comes close to describing what we are trying to accomplish in the education of our children.  We want students to graduate with the dispositions and skills to creatively engage and succeed in a world that is changing at unprecedented rates.  We want a high level of achievement that is measured in meaningful ways and inspires further investigation and maybe even genius.

In order for this to happen, we need to help people to change how they view children, adults, and themselves.  This requires a significant shift away from deficit models most of us have grown up with.  People are not defined by what they can’t do.  They are respected for their contributions and efforts are acknowledged.  Perfection is not the standard.  Growth is the expectation.  Lifelong learning is recaptured as a concept of identifying areas for growth and continuing to learn over the course of a lifetime.  

As a faculty associate at Simon Fraser University, I loved the conversations that proceeded the classroom observations with students in the process of completing their degree in Education.  They were all about what the student wanted me to look for to help them improve their practice.  I love this conversation with teachers.  The process is defined and for the learner.  I was involved in the revision of the Standards for principals and vice-principals in British Columbia.  It is the same process of supporting the learner to improve.  It presumes that the learner wants to improve.

I have enrolled Kindergarten to Grade 8 students in the public system.  I have taught summer school to secondary English Language Learners.  I’ve taught undergraduate students at the university level.  I’ve taught practicing teachers in Vancouver and in China.  I have worked as colleagues with teachers in three school districts and as a vice-principal / principal in the Vancouver School District.  I have attended professional development with educators from all over the world.  Generally, learners in all of these contexts want to improve.  The biggest block to learning is the belief that identifying growth areas will be used against you.  In contexts where a deficit model exists, perfection is the gold standard.  In contexts where a growth model exists, identifying areas for growth is a precursor to learning.

In British Columbia, the successful implementation of the revised curriculum will require the adoption of reporting practices that support learning.  Identifying areas of strength is only one side of the equation. Identifying areas which require more repetition and practice, and ways to support this learning, is the key to future development of the learner.  The aversion of many educators to letter grades or sliding scales comes out of the fact that it does not provide a complete picture that supports future learning.  Every reporting period should be a celebration of growth and an honest discussion of the plan for moving forward in the learning process.  

In the COVID-19 world, I have been involved in the question with my staff and colleagues of how to build communities when students are separated into cohorts.  My last attempt at a school wide assembly.  All students learning at school and at home were on the All-Students TEAM.  My intro worked.  Division 1 student acknowledgement of Indigenous lands from their classroom worked.  I shared my PowerPoint.  The embedded perfect clip by Canadian students illustrating the importance of Human Rights and setting the stage for Human Rights Day on December 10th.  I played it from the link in the PowerPoint.  Didn’t download it first or share on my screen.  Kids heard it but didn’t see it.  Some teachers copied the link and played it.  Epic fail.  Definitely a D grade if I was writing the report card on it.  I went on PA and apologised.  Shortly after, I received this email from a Grade 3 / 4 class:

“Division 7 is really proud of you for being brave and trying something new even if it didn’t work.”

So not actually an epic fail.  We are all a work in progress.  I met many of the criteria for success and I have learned what I need to do next time.  These kids jolted me out of the deficit model of thinking that I grew up with.  We have had many laughs on the playground about epic fails and what we learned.  I can provide lots of these stories.  For the Winter Show N’ Share, I pre-recorded everything so the hard work of students and the amazing production led by our amazing music teacher, Ms. Presley, and the slick presentation by Mr. Carruthers would be the central focus for our school community.  It was perfect enough!  For the January online assembly, I have a plan.

Reconciling Assessment & Reporting Practices with the New Curriculum in British Columbia

The implementation of the New Curriculum in British Columbia has garnered a lot of attention throughout the world.  Our population is made up of Canadians, immigrants and refugees from many different places, with many different schooling traditions.  In my little school of only 328 students, we have 34 home languages.  Yet what we are doing to prepare our students for the demands of the 21st Century is bringing good results.

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Students are encouraged to ask the key questions laid out so effectively by Judy Halbert and Linda Kaser in The Spirals of Inquiry.

  • Where am I now in my learning?
  • Where am I going next?
  • What do I need to get there?

Suzanne Hoffman, Superintendent, Learning Transformation, Ministry of Education emphasizes the significance of “unveiling the hidden curriculum” by deliberately teaching and assessing core competencies.  Deliberate instruction and reflection of  communication, thinking and personal / social responsibility skills have the power to transform lives of our students (SAHoffman, Nov. 15, 2017).  Mandatory self assessment demonstrates that core competencies are important enough to be measured and help students to learn about themselves as learners, to develop the skills required for collaboration and to supports the creation meaningful goals.

Aside from the students themselves, teachers have the most significant impact on the students in their classrooms.   Teachers in British Columbia have a high level of professionalism.  They  are well educated and have regular access to professional development and opportunities for collaboration.  As John A.C. Hattie aptly states in Visible Learning for Teachers:  Maximizing Impact on Learning ” (2013)  “…those teachers who are students of their own impact, are the teachers who are the most influential in raising students’ achievement.”    By making learning intentions explicit, teachers help their students to learn intended learning outcomes, as well as the strategies of how to learn.   The development of scoring rubrics with students or  a review of criteria prior to assignments or marking, helps students to understand expectations and plan their time.  The challenge for teachers is to determine those strategies and practices that will enable students to ask complex questions, problem solve, work collaboratively and persevere to find answers and discover future possibilities.

In the new curriculum students are given far more responsibility for their own learning.  One rationale is to improve student engagement in school.  Another is to create students who will be able to respond to the demands of the 21st century.  My son works as a designer in Lululemon’s “Whitespace” with engineers, scientists and technologists.  Beyond the frosted glass and carded access, he is researching how clothes impact physical performance and the mental and emotional perception of athletic ability.  The goal is to respond to trends, create markets and tailor sports clothing for 4-10 years down the road.  To our amazement as his parents, the childhood fascination with lego, trials riding, downhill riding, skiing, snowboarding and the construction of death defying jumps were the things that provided some of the rudimentary learning required for the job.  We can’t predict all of the jobs in the future, but the new curriculum sets out to enable students to ask and respond to tough questions and learn through engagement in the things they find fascinating.    Students are now responsible for assuming responsibility for their learning, engaging with peers to learn cooperatively and participating in evaluating their progress.

In the not so distant past, teachers aspired to be a fountain of knowledge and rushed in to speed up the process of answering questions or finishing explanations expeditiously.  Jon Saphier,  recently featured in a Webinar sponsored by Corwin (Nov. 13, 2017), suggested three ways to make learning visible and deeper:  Turn and talk.  Explain. Restate.  In the new Curriculum, we want students to take the time to think about difficult problems, to be comfortable being stuck, to engage in dialogue, to ask peers to explain their thinking, and to persevere until they discover their answers.

 

The shift from summative to formative assessment is necessary to assist students in this new role.  In order for our students to take more responsibility for their learning, they require ongoing feedback embedded in their daily instruction.  The focus is not on one letter grade but movement along a continuum to demonstrate growth in student learning.  The initial response was the development of paper based portfolios that allowed students to self select items to demonstrate learning outcomes.  The accessibility of technology has added several other layers and possibilities with the addition of pictures, videos and attachments with comment.

The Surrey School District has been using FreshGrade for the past four years to facilitate the collection of online portfolios to provide what Sir Ken Robinson calls “a continuous glimpse into each child’s progress that parents and students can share”.  It is one of the possible online applications that BC teachers like for the ease of use by young children and the inclusion of BC Performance standards.  The VSB is currently exploring how Office365 can be used in conjunction with various applications to fascilitate learning, store and showcase student work from entry in Kindergarten to graduation in Grade 12.  All school districts in British Columbia are developing reporting directives for implementation in September 2018 that will mesh with the new curriculum.

 

 

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Reporting has always included the aspect of what students are able to do, the areas that require future attention and the ways of supporting students.  The opportunities introduced by implementation of the new curriculum in British Columbia are the source of many conversations with colleagues, students and parents about how our system in British Columbia can become even better.  Let the learning continue…

Formal assessments continue to play a role in providing feedback about students and  Provincial assessments , National and International assessments provide a snapshot of student performance in key areas and, over time, can help to monitor key outcomes of B.C.’s education system.

From the Ministry of Education Website:

B.C. students participate in three types of large-scale assessment:

  • Classroom Assessment is an integral part of the instructional process and can serve as meaningful sources of information about student learning.
  • Provincial Assessments:
  • National and international assessments measure reading, math and science skills of B.C. students. Various age ranges participate and student achievement levels are compared with other provinces or countries.