Report Cards and Motivation for Learning

report card 1944

Image by pjern via Flickr

I’m wondering about the impact of grades on our psyches.  One of my kids, who I’ve known for 5 years, got a lot of C’s on his recent report card.  Does this accurately reflect his achievement on assessments, assignments, etc?  How do these C’s affect his image of himself as a student?  As a learner?  Do they make him feel like trying harder to get into the B range?  Or is he resigned that he might be a C student?  And if he is C student, how will that affect his future?  Will it be harder to get into the college of his choice?  Will it affect his ability to get into the type of career he desires?  Will it affect his ability to be successful in life (whatever we define that as).

Another student has always struggled with literacy.  Writing is hard and she told me that she would never enter a career where she had to write.  She gets mostly B’s in English and writing classes, which would suggest that she has a fairly good handle on the craft, but her desire would probably be graded well below that.  It bothers me that her feeling and desire don’t seem to be reflected in a report card.  Can this ever be reconciled?  Does it need to be, or should we just understand what grades represent and move on?  Still, I am a bit discouraged that grades represent such a limited part of the student and can be disconnected from engagement, enjoyment, and true learning.

The last student whose report card I have seen is one whose grades I feel do not accurately reflect her achievement, but moreso her effort.  Does she now have a false sense of her skill level?  Does the fact that she received acceptable grades further her motivation?  If she had received lower ones, would her effort suffer?  How is this report card serving her?

I understand the need to portray information to parents and students and document learning, progress, and achievement levels.  I was a classroom teacher for 10 years.  I wonder how we might more clearly understand the purpose of report cards and how we might dedicate more effort to communicating about the “unmeasureables.”

For the most part we grade on what’s easy to assess.  But are these skills what is most important to learn?  As an adult I’ve observed friends whose success, in large part, has depended on their ambition.  Sometimes they aren’t the most knowledgeable in their field and I’m sure there are others in those jobs who know more, but the sheer motivation and drive get these people ahead.  These qualities put them in a position where they can then learn the nuts and bolts of a job and proceed on up the road of success.  It’s their sheer ambition that got them there in the first place.  So I wonder how we encourage students to get to know themselves, get to know what they’re ambitious about.  How does that personal development tie into what we traditionally assess in school?

A lot of my thinking is driven by questions. Below, I’ve listed a few more.  The bottom line I’m wondering about is how we might more carefully look at how report cards affect the student’s continued learning and growth.

What do report cards mean for the learner and how do they give meaningful feedback?  Are report cards sort of a self-serving, end-in-themselves set of information?  If we see report cards as coming from the external, possibly only serving those same externals how do they connect to the learner in a meaningful way?  How do report cards positively serve the child, parent, teacher?  How should they?  What is their actual purpose?  How do report cards portray what we can measure and what we can’t?