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Traditional school reports are dead

Why progressive reporting offers meaning, direction and iteration

As a senior school teacher, I have written thousands of end of term/semester reports; as a parent I have read hundreds and I am not convinced any school has quite got reporting ‘right’.

Written reports appear in many different guises. Sometimes these reports are crafted so that they can be read to a proud Granny, other times that act as a receipt of education ‘delivered’. Some reports are so generic they are useless. Other reports are clearly copied and pasted and bear no relevance to the student being reported upon.

There are reasons why these undesirable situations occur: teacher workload and unclear or rigid reporting guidelines are obvious.

But what if one of the issues with reporting has its origin much farther back in the education process in the way in which curriculums are designed?

Curriculum design’s role in meaningful reporting

In the curriculum design process teachers need to consider the content that will be taught but also the skills that will be practised by the students. This is a fundamental step.

These should be recorded and be accessible to all relevant teachers.

curriculum design, design thinking, school reports

The next fundamental step is for the relevant teachers to determine the progress that is desirable for students to make as they move through the curriculum. So, for example, a Politics department teaching international terrorism might use guiding principles such as:

Building blocks of knowledge and understanding

By the end of this course on international terrorism, students will build up knowledge and understanding of the possible political, social and economic causes of terrorism, the impact terrorism has on individuals and governments and explore the effectiveness of the ways in which the international community is taking steps to tackle international terrorism.

Students will practise the following skills:

  • Researching, understanding and using a range of information/evidence on contemporary issues.

  • Evaluating information/evidence in order to give straightforward explanations while detecting bias and exaggeration.

  • Making decisions and drawing conclusions.

  • Constructing straightforward arguments in a balanced and structured way.

  • Communicating, by a variety of means, views, opinions, decisions and conclusions based on evidence.

With such clarity, teachers can clearly identify what the student needs to do to progress by practising and developing these skills while also acquiring the stated knowledge. It is these guiding principles that can help teachers construct their reporting.

Is progress the same as attainment?

Teachers write about ‘progress’ in reports but are they actually reporting on progress or offering a statement of what has been covered in their lessons?

progress, attainment, school reports

Academic attainment can be evidenced as progress in some respects as a student can move up a grade or gain a higher percentage in a test from one term to another.

I am not averse to this as long as there is context offered about the assessment(s).

What I do take exception to is when progress is reported in relation to everyone else in the class.

I never want to read about ranking order of achievement as if attainment and/or progress were a competition.

Education progress is not this and yet this is the dominant model in school reporting.

When we reduce progress to a scale of achievement we are missing the point and the opportunity for meaningful reporting on a child.

The issue here is that progress and attainment are quite different elements of a student’s education experience.

The value I seek in a report is a commentary on the progress of a student. As the reader or writer of a report, I see little value in offering generic statements about topics covered, knowledge and skills ‘achieved’ and some test results from one moment in time.

Progress might be tracked in the form of data analysis over time or teacher observations and professional judgement. Also important to me as the recipient and writer of end of term/semester reports is commentary on the social and emotional development and wellbeing of a student.

For me, this is hugely valuable when it comes from a subject teacher rather than solely from a pastoral or guidance teacher.

If I teach your child for an hour a day, five days a week, I feel I can give you a meaningful commentary about their intellectual, social and emotional character.

I want to read and write about the ways the student is practising active listening, accountable talk and how well they work with others in their class.

Let’s add in the humanity of education rather than simply focussing on the impersonal nature of data analysis.

school reports, traditional reports, portfolio reports

The time lag between a teacher writing a report and the report landing in the hand or mailbox of the recipient can often be multiple weeks which can make the reporting out of date and inaccurate.

In this instance, the report is obsolete and yet has likely consumed hours upon hours of writing, checking, double checking, printing, posting or emailing. The parental emails and phone calls that will inevitably follow simply adds to the workload of the Head of Year or Department.

What I have also observed and experienced over my almost two decades working in education is that parents often request interim reporting on their child. Again, this adds to the workload of teachers who are asked to carry out additional reporting beyond the scope of the original reporting schedule.

What is the solution?

So how do we overcome these challenges of meaningless, inaccurate, generic, competitive reporting of attainment, dressed up in some cases as ‘progress’?

We use progressive reporting. This is continual reporting throughout a course, term/semester. On first glance, this appears like an additional workload, but I believe the reverse is more accurate.

Instead of a static snapshot of a student’s achievement written in week 5 of a school term but delivered to the parent/carer on the final day of term 3 weeks later, schools could offer a regular update on the actual progress of the student.

This could feature images of work, videos, observations, professional judgements and so much more. These reports would be dynamic and accessible at any time by teachers, parents, carers and school leaders. It would be, in effect, a live, online resource that showed tangible progress, or lack thereof.

portfolio reporting, traditional reporting

When we offer a test score and subsequent ranking order in a written report, it is a meaningless endeavour if the reader and teacher cannot compare it to a starting point or at least the test, task or activity that preceded it.

I am not going to search for the paper copy or email of the report stating the achievement of my children for the previous term or school year and so I cannot identify what, if any progress has been made.

There is no ‘silver bullet’, but…

There is no ‘perfect’ reporting solution but if we consider reporting to be a feedback tool, and feedback is best delivered during a process rather than after the fact, it would make sense to make reporting progressive and live, rather than static and inaccurate at the point of delivery.

Real time feedback is one of the most valuable aspects of a classroom experience. Real time feedback as a report serves an authentic purpose.

It can be updated regularly rather than require a teacher to spend hundreds of hours writing records.

Imagine if you hired a builder to build you a house. You asked for three bedrooms upstairs but they only made provision for two. You only found this out when the builder handed over the keys because you didn’t have the opportunity or simply just did not check in on the progress of the build.

This analogy can be extended to school reporting because reporting needs to provide opportunities for the student to iterate their actions and performance to see real progress. Perhaps something like this could provide parents and carers opportunities to discuss progress and even simply the topics being taught at home:

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