It’s that time of year when report cards are issued for students after their first semester. One can usually tell, given that teenage chatter on school buses and public transit typically reaches a fever pitch, as report cards are ferried home by students who have had a peek at their results with reactions ranging from delight to disappointment. With a few surprises met by gasps, no doubt.

Unfortunately, stereotypes persist in terms of dread attached to the delivery of a report card to judgmental parents that contains at best marginal results, interpreted by those at home as ‘underachievement’, pure and simple. And further met with ‘consequences’ (imposition of a curfew, reduction in ‘allowance’, loss of certain privileges), often perceived, regrettably, as punishment.

If such a scenario still happens in a household, how lamentable is that! It prompts a hopefully enlightened examination of what exactly are ‘report cards’ and how results and comments within them should be received, reviewed, and the interface between child and parent, and between a student, the student’s parents and teacher(s) and the school (system). Reference will be had to the Ontario ‘report card’ system and approach.

Report cards measure a student’s standing and progress against Provincial standards and theoretically are designed to support and enhance the learning process, grade by grade. The elementary grades (prior to secondary school) look to ‘milestones’, with consideration of learning behaviour (responsibility, organization, initiative, independent work, collaboration, self-regulation), and achievement is measured for specific subjects, to which extensive comments can be made by a teacher. These comments are often made up of 3 connected segments: whether the student’s performance is consistent with the ‘standard’, and perhaps exceeds it; an example of performance; a comment about what needs improvement.

Grades 9 to 12 involve a different focus. Academic performance shifts more to achievement and becomes more acutely measured (percentage marks), with comments still relevant albeit possibly less directly informative, because course work is more complex and challenging to discuss, issues often difficult to pinpoint.

Grades 1 to 8 ‘report card’ templates come with 2 detachable areas: 1) Student’s Comments 2) Parent’s/Guardian’s Comments*. Secondary school templates do not include these areas, so it is incumbent upon parent and child to engage in a mutual review of the reports (results) as these are provided throughout a school year. For all grades, children and parents have the means to communicate in writing and by other means to teachers and school administrators. Communication is built into the system.

Reference is made to ‘mutual’ for an important reason. The stereotype criticized at the outset of this blog should not even be joked about. Learning and assessment in grade school does not stand still, and with increasing age comes increasing independence and responsibility, plus a necessary recognition that achievement could spell the difference between graduation to a quality, recognized program, with career prospects, and a decidedly different outcome.

Hard as it may be, parents should avoid even the appearance of being judgmental, nor should they speculate or jump to possibly premature conclusions, about a child’s performance in school. Concerns are well-founded for a variety of reasons, and in quite a number of instances, a child needs help, with issues that are evident which have nothing to do with lack of effort.

Bearing that in mind, the inquiry moves to Where? Why? How? Some schools have remedial programs, and a student and parents should know whether these are effective in a relatively short period of time, because time is not on your side during a school year.

Parents should not be reluctant to approach a teacher to clarify the contents of a report card, identify critical areas of concern, then invite the school’s view as to where it can help quickly and effectively (use an interpreter if it will aid mutual understanding during any meeting).

Regard always should be had to engagement of a tutor for individual, for the purpose of focused remediation or the fortifying of a subject area, key considerations being not to delay and to weigh the importance of raising achievement (grade averages, especially in secondary school).

Among the first things a Book Smart Tutor wants to see when meeting a new student is report cards. I always ask before the first appointment. In some cases, a report card ‘speaks volumes’, although it depends on the degree of application by teachers, and helpful insight may not always be there, given an occasional reluctance to be blunt. A review of report cards is conducted with both the parents and the student, as an avenue of inquiry and not as a forum for criticism.

The Province of Ontario declares its ‘report card’ system to be a ‘support’, yet support cannot be limited to results revealed in a document. In cooperation with the student, parents should ‘support’ the evaluation by taking steps as outlined above, with teachers’ support as absolutely essential.

A tutor? Yes, because Book Smart Tutors recognizes justifiable concerns and issues, and deals with these to have the student meet and pass the current milestones, and in many, many cases, advance well beyond them.

Robert MacFarlane is a graduate of Princeton University. He has tutored English and related subjects with Book Smart Tutors for several years.

*  The author stresses the importance of carefully completing and submitting ‘detachable areas’ in report cards; these are a convenient way to open a dialogue with a teacher.

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