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Why report cards get a C for warmth
Computerized ratings of your child are part of a drive for provincewide consistency

By Christine Cox
The Hamilton Spectator
December 3, 2004

It's report card time again, and if you really want to know how your child is doing, check the descriptive phrases.

Linger over words such as "with help," "occasionally," "generally" and "consistently."

Your child is "sometimes" able to identify and describe elements of stories. How often is sometimes, you wonder? Is he keeping up with his classmates?

"Generally," he speaks using correct sentence agreement. Is generally good enough?

So what does this all mean?

If it all sounds rather formulaic, that's because it is. You won't see comments like "Little Jason is a delightful, co-operative child. It's a pleasure to have him in my class."

There's no point getting nostalgic over those handwritten report cards of days gone by.

Report cards are computerized now and they're also much more standardized than they used to be. They follow a format laid down by the education ministry in 1998 and most of the comments are in a column headed Strengths/Weaknesses/Next Steps.

Joanna Cascioli, a program effectiveness consultant with the Hamilton public school board, said the comments are based on expectations from the curriculum. They describe skills, not children.

"That does tend to make them sound a little more impersonal," Cascioli agreed. "The whole class is working on the same expectations ... there are definitely going to be a lot of similarities."

But there will be differences, because students have different strengths and weaknesses. Cascioli said teachers choose which expectations are being covered each term and create "comment banks," individually or as a team, for the various levels of achievement.

The comments are the adverbs mentioned earlier. The more frequently or independently a student meets an expectation, the better.

Here's a primer:

A-rated students always, independently or competently do things.

B-rated students do things usually or regularly.

C-rated students do things sometimes or with assistance.

The consistency of report cards throughout the province means that if a child changes schools or moves into another board's area, the teacher reading it will know exactly how to interpret it.

Students up to Grade 6 get report cards with letter grades such as A, B, and C. In Grades 7 and 8, a percentage is provided.

A B grade is equivalent to the provincial standard and is fairly rigorous. It's the same as Level 3 in the provincial testing ranking, which has four levels.

"Getting a B is very good. It means a lot more than it used to," Cascioli said. "An A -- wow!"

One area where teachers try to make the comments a little more personal is in the learning skills section, which deals with topics such as homework completion, co-operation with others, and class participation.

Veteran teacher Cynthia Norman said teachers are limited in what they can say on report cards.

"I miss the effort column," Norman sighed. "A lot of kids really work hard ... and that really doesn't show up on this report card."

She's glad that parent interviews give her an opportunity to share some of the more personal observations about her students. Cascioli stressed that the report card is just one piece of information that parents receive. Nothing on it should come as a surprise, because teachers communicate with them in various ways throughout the term. Some send home summaries of achievement, some send home tests to be signed, and there should be phone calls if there are concerns.

Christina Lawson, a parent at Gordon Price School, is satisfied with her own child's report card but said some parents have concerns.

"It's mostly with the comment section, because it's cut and paste. It's generic wording," Lawson said.

Lawson doesn't wait for report cards to find out how her child is doing. "I try to look at their work every single night and if they're having problems, I talk to the teacher on an ongoing basis. I think the report cards are just a snippet."