/ 16 September 2022

The school report card needs to be reinvented

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The standard report card provides little information about the child beyond their capacity to remember what they have been taught. (Photo by Martin Wichmann/picture alliance via Getty Images))

As we near the end of yet another school term, parents are preparing for their child’s report card, either with happy anticipation or dread, depending on what grades they expect from their children. But what does a school report card tell us about a child’s learning? 

Does an 80% for, say, maths mean that this child is intelligent while a 20% grade indicates that a child is not? What, in fact, is an 80% child or a 20% child? Do these grades describe anything about actual cognitive development happening in our developing child? 

The report card in primary schools needs to be reinvented to contain detailed knowledge about the child, rather than simply providing a static grade. It is in primary school that most cognitive development happens.

The grades given in a report card rely heavily on summative assessments that children are required to sit every term. A summative assessment is a high-stakes test/exam that is given at a scheduled time. Although we are not opposed to summative testing,we need to ask what this kind of test tells us about a child’s thinking abilities. 

At best, such a test determines what content a child can remember and perform at a specific point in time. It is a memory test aimed at performance rather than competence, where performance refers to what the child produces on the test while competence refers to the child’s reasoning and thinking. At worst, it tests just that portion of the work the teacher has focused on. In some cases teachers resort to teaching to the test, covering only the content that is covered in the test. 

As a measure of how much a child can remember of the content the learner has been taught, summative tests could be useful as indicators of what it is a child still needs to learn. 

What a summative test cannot test is whether a child has acquired the concepts being taught in the class, nor can it tell us anything about the child’s capacity to learn. These tests do not take external variables into account when the child is tested. The problem with this is that we have no idea what the child’s context is when we give these kinds of tests. 

We know from well over 50 years of psychological research based on Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory that a child’s performance is influenced by various systems that interact to create the conditions for learning. If the child has a cold, hasn’t eaten for a day, has just been told their parents are getting a divorce or has just fought with their best friend, the way that child performs on the test will differ from a child who hasn’t experienced anything adverse. 

Yet these tests predominantly inform the final grade that appears in a school report. In a bid to understand what a more holistic reporting mechanism could look like, we interviewed professionals who deal with children daily, such as teachers, occupational therapists, educational psychologists, remedial specialists and parents. We wanted to find out what kind of a report they would like to see when a child is placed into their class or into their context. 

The findings suggested that a new kind of school report card should be implemented. Various indicators were identified for inclusion in this report. 

At the micro systemic level, which is the environments and structures (individuals) the learner has direct contact with, the following indicators were important for understanding the child’s immediate context: knowledge about the child’s peer relations, bullying, relationship with parents and caregivers, mental health issues such as diagnosed anxiety or depression and knowledge of any learning barriers the child might have. 

At the mesosystem level, which relates to relationships between elements of the microsystem such as parent/teacher relations, the following indicators were considered important to include in a report card: parental involvement in schoolwork and open communication between school and home. 

The next system Bronfenbrenner discusses is the exosystem, which relates to activities the child is not actively involved in but which can affect the child’s well-being such as parental working hours. Participants suggested that parental working hours and socioeconomic status were considered important to include in the report to the extent that, for example, financial strain could affect a child’s developmental trajectory. There is a large body of evidence that indicates that good nutrition, from in-utero through the first years of life, is essential in the development of the brain. Knowledge of a child not having access to adequate food helps one to understand the child’s development more fully. 

The macrosystem is that system that has indirect effects on all the other systems. Participants identified cultural beliefs and family values as being important for inclusion in a holistic report. 

A final system, that encompasses all systems, is the chronosystem, which refers to the historical embedding of the child and relates to life-altering events that have occurred in the child’s life. Former trauma the child may have been exposed to should be in the report such as prior parental divorce and prior relocation. 

The static report card tells very little about a child’s actual abilities and provides no background as to why a child performs in a certain way. We propose an electronic portfolio as a mechanism for developing a holistic report card. An e-portfolio has benefits over a paper portfolio because it can be updated relatively easily. Moreover, the e-portfolio provides confidentiality and data protection as cyber security protocols can be enforced, something not possible with hard copy documents such as report cards. 

We are not suggesting that no grades are given; there is a need to know what content the child has remembered at the time of the test. What we are suggesting is that this grade alone can tell us nothing about the child’s capacity to learn and does not provide a basis for educators, professionals and parents from which to assist a child who may be struggling or to identify a child who is gifted. 

Professor Joan Hardman and Amber Clarke are with the University of Cape Town’s School of Education