Student Reports: Are they worth the time and cost?

During May I visited a number of schools and invariably teachers spoke to me about starting their student reports which were due in 4-5 weeks time to parents. It seemed a long time in the prepare phase but then as a retired Principal I knew better.

Lots of questions come to mind when talking about student reports but the one I’m posing is:

Are they worth the cost in their current form?

A brief history for some perspective.

Teachers have produced student reports for over 150 years in Australia. Reports came in many guises, some with just marks expressed as letters (A,B,C,D) or percentages (95%), some with tick the box type comments others with extensive commentary. Reports formats and content varied depending on school type (independent or public schools), from school to school and from teacher to teacher within the same school.

In 2005 the Federal Government mandated a set format for student reports as part of a funding package to schools. There was some evidence that parents in general were dissatisfied with student reports. Some 14 years later are they any better?

A recent article in Teacher Magazine looked at teacher comments and their effects on parent understanding of student progress. While the authors concluded that teacher comments were valuable to parents they left the final opinion to an ACER report due out soon.

My question came after I recent rereading of ‘Meeting Wise‘ a Harvard Press publication. In ‘Meeting Wise’ the authors posed the question about the cost and value of meetings in schools.

Mine is a similar question but on student reports – what’s the cost and are we getting value?

Cost

Teachers can be fearful of making a “wrong” judgement in case its questioned by school administration or worse still parents:

One result is that teachers administer additional summative tests near the end of a semester.

The cost of these standardised tests can range from $1 to $9 per test depending upon the school purchasing arrangements and computer network facility (pen/paper costs more than computer generated test). Some State Governments provide free online assessments. Then there’s the teacher time to mark and grade the tests.

So let’s be conservative and say 2 tests per student at $4 a test total $8, teacher grading time at 10 minutes per test times is $18. The summary pre report cost so far is $26 per student report.

Now the teacher time to compile all the data from tests, graded student work samples and notes on learning conversations, time to aggregate and record judgement against curriculum outcomes, and then write comments on performance. For a primary school teacher they generally spent 90 minutes per report which costs about $72.

In lots of primary and secondary schools the principal class officers review and edit student reports for appropriate teacher style and consistency. This on average is about 15 minutes per report which costs about $25 per report.

So the total cost per report about $123. This might not seem unreasonable if we could measure their value in the school and home contexts .

It’s here the waters get muddy.

Before moving away from cost from an industry perspective, schools with 600+ ,as was my last school, the cost per year for student reports would often exceed $145,000. This is a significant sum and similar amounts in school budgets are usually required to be substantiated, evaluated and reported on to school boards.

Teacher Unions for years have been pushing for additional administration time for teachers to amongst other things produce these reports. For a primary teacher with 22.5 hrs contact hours plus non negotiable duties like yard supervision it meant finding an additional 12.5 hrs per week for 4 weeks. As a retired Principal I know we tried to provide some time by having meeting free weeks and provided additional some administrative release time however it was still insufficient. Consequently teachers took the work home to do at night and on weekends.

This is not news for teachers.

Please note that I have not added the additional cost associated with preparing for and attending parent teacher interviews which often follow student reports.

Yet the parent report card on the usefulness of student reports is still out.

If you argue that parents and teachers form a partnership in the education of their children what actions might a parent expect of themselves as a result of reading their child’s report? You might conjecture that the information provided in student reports enables the parent to feel better connected to the school and teacher and that connectedness is an enabler for improved student learning. If so, we could measure that through parent surveys and focus groups. Is this the value we are seeking?

I’m going to suggest there might be an invisible cost to all this time and money going on the current format of student reports, that of student learning.

When teachers are spending all their time over the ‘reporting season’ producing these reports what is happening to their normal duties that include:

  • attending team meetings to plan a differentiated curriculum
  • teacher time to prepare lessons that engage and motivate student to learn, inclusive of stated learning intentions and success criteria
  • time to restore one’s energy so that teachers can calmly support un settled students or resolve behavioural disputes.

My intent is not to castigate teachers but simple to say that something has to give and it’s often the latter generally invisible costs to parents.

What if teachers said out aloud:

  • I want to inform you of progress and next steps but gradings with all their unintended consequences can so often get in the way of that conversation.
  • I want to inform you of progress and next steps but writing lengthy slabs of text about 6 months of learning costs me time away form teaching.
  • I want to inform you of progress and achievement but I want to assess to know what the next steps of learning for your child are, not as summative confirmation to justify a grade.
  • I want to inform you of progress but not be judged as a person or an failed educator when I let you know your child hits a few road bumps in the journey of learning
  • I want to inform you of progress on the few key improvement goals we set, not on all the activities involved in learning.

Then perhaps we can have a sensible dialogue, one that doesn’t take away time from the valuable teaching and caring, one that then provides the basis for a short summary of our conversation and not this standardised grade based and I would add consumer orientated view of schooling.

Interested in your thoughts