Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Understanding reports in WA

I am often asked to interpret reports of friends children and explain to parents what the report really means. I am no expert on writing primary reports but I am critical of the lack of transparency in school documents and the degree of technical literacy required to understand them.

Reports are one of those things that have been bastardised by bureaucracy and politics. To be honest their usefulness is limited in their current form unless you are a teacher or bureaucrat. Even as a teacher, the variance of grading between one teacher and the next is too great making the data unreliable and thus is rarely referred to. Here are two cases that recently presented themselves.

Scenario A
Student is in year 7, has been given an excellent report. He has a level three in Maths and English and is finding school boring and too easy.

Q: Is my student doing ok?
A: Probably not. If they are level 3 and finding school easy then they are not being extended enough. Asked student to record what they did today in paragraph form (not dot points). Spelling accuracy was limited. Student was writing without an understanding of conjunctions, limited punctuation and was writing very slowly. Student could not recall last book longer than 10 pages read. Student could not recite 4 or six times tables. Student had limited understanding of order of operations.
Remedy: Indicated that parent needed to take greater interest in performance of student. Suggested student complete homework at kitchen table each night with parent assisting and providing additional examples to complete. Indicated a few books that the student may like and indicated that parents reading with them would be a good idea. Suggested methodology for learning tables and order of operations.

Level 3 is the minimum level a student should be getting in year 7. You would expect students to be completing a variety of level 4 tasks in year 7. Sadly many teachers are only teaching level 3 material. This is very evident when talking to primary teachers at PD through their lack of understanding of level 4 tasks in mathematics.

Scenario B
Student is in year 4. He is the top of their class in mathematics and performed well in NAPLAN testing. He has been given a B. The student is distressed as they expected an A.

Q:Huh? How can this be?
A:Back in the day when we were students, results for a class were scaled to a normal distribution - each class had a few A's, a few more B's, lots of C's, a few D's and a student or two earmarked for being held back. Sadly this is no longer the case. If a teacher does not teach the 'A' material (for whatever reason defined by that abomination smartie chart), an A will not be given, the same goes for B's, C's, D's & E's. In this case this is what has happened. NAPLAN testing at this level is more IQ testing than progress testing which is why this result was consistent with student and parent expectations.
Remedy: I supplied printed copies of progress maps and pointers for mathematics and links to sample items for the next NAPLAN test. Suggested parents consider looking at level of student and work at assisting student understand material at the next level.

It may sound ok to define 'A' material and provide an 'A' consistent with students across the state until you consider that in some low socioeconomic schools if grading was done consistently with curriculum framework directives, no student would get higher than a C for the first years of schools whilst they caught up to their contemporaries in more affluent schools. Even gifted students (but lacking environmental support) get discouraged as they try to overcome their lack of support at home and get C's despite making large jumps in knowledge and applying themselves. Although the idea of A-E grading was good, the application was poor. For low ability students in lower classes - they may never get higher than a D despite a great work ethic and working at a level consistent with their peers.

The solution? Provide normalised results for each class on reports (allowing students to get grades in relation to their peers) and use NAPLAN tests to show progress in relation to other schools with expected ranges for university and TAFE entry. Duh!

(Addendum 30/1/2008: It is interesting to note that the West had an informative article on just this topic today.. details of the article can be found here (half way down the page) by Bethany Hiatt titled "Parents need lessons on the grading system". Yes I am being positive about a media article - must be the optimism and endorphin spike associated with the start of a new year.)

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