Re-imagining the Educational Technology Known as the Report Card – 5 Alternatives

I still have a few of them in a musty box that my mom gave me about ten years ago.  They sit beside a few ribbons, a couple of middle and high school accolades, and a warm-up shirt from basketball. There is not much to them, just a list of courses and some handwritten letters. On a few of them from middle school, there was a sentence or two from the teacher, sharing an encouraging word or a suggested area of improvement. Looking at these report cards now, I am not sure what they tell me.  They don’t tell me what I knew or didn’t know.  They don’t give me any guidance on what I was doing well or specific skills that I should further develop.

They tell me what grade that I earned, but not why or how, or what it means to earn one grade over another (apart from a small key in the corner that uses words like excellent, above average, satisfactory, below average, and unsatisfactory).  Of course, the key doesn’t define those terms, and I have no idea how an “excellent” in a course compares to an “excellent” in another course. My point is that these sorts of report cards have limited value in reporting on what a student actually does or does not learn, nor do they serve as a guide or resource for students and parents who want to learn from them.

The great news is that there are any number of alternatives to this educational technology called the report card. Many people have sought to redesign and re-imagine the use of these assessment technologies, adding promising features. To get us started, consider the following five options.  None of them are perfect, but they might serve as an invitation to consider more helpful and promising possibilities.

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1) The Standards-based Report Card – With this approach, you may still have courses listed out on the report card, but you also list more detailed knowledge and/or skills within each course. Often, instead of letter grades, there are checks beside each of the items in the list of knowledge and skill, checks that denote levels like advanced, proficient or basic. They might have a sentence that states what it means to be advanced versus proficient or basic with regard to each standard (often in a rubric format). In addition to the content-related knowledge and skills, the report card might include similar lists of items about conduct, study skills and habits, and other important non-content competencies.  Note that in the traditional report card, such behaviors often get put into the course letter grade, making it even more difficult to decide if a certain grade is due to a lack of learning or something else (like turning in work late and being docked points).  This approach also forces us to design formative assessments that get at these discrete areas of knowledge and skill.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 10.44.38 PM2) Competency Badges – If you know much about Boy Scout Badges, then you get the idea.  This approach seeks to create a collection of “badges” that learners earn by demonstrating a certain level of competence or mastery with regard to certain knowledge and/or skills.  There is a clearly stated means by which one is able to earn a badge. When a student earns a badge, it goes on their “report card”, which can be done digitally so that parents and students can check progress throughout the year.  There may be mandatory badges, and other specialty badges that give students with a chance to explore and refine areas of personal passion and interest. I have yet to see a school implement badges in place of report cards, but I have seen some start to experiment with badges as a way to get at evidence of more specific knowledge and skills, and to add a little gamification to the learning experience.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 10.44.57 PM3) The Grade-less Report Card – There are plenty of studies to indicate how this one is often disliked by parents (who grew up with letter grades). It still uses standards (like the standards-based report card above), but it does not use evaluative terms like advanced or proficient, nor does it list actual grades.  It instead includes a rubric with standard statements of performance (organized from high to low levels of performance). The parents and/or students might mentally associate some sort of value (or lack thereof) with which statement is checked for a given student, but the teacher simply documents which statement best describe where the student is at that moment.  In this case, the teacher’s focus is upon monitoring and documenting learning, not rating it. The teacher simply helps the student continue to progress toward higher levels of knowledge and skill. The report card can be updated and made available to students and parents dozens of times throughout a term or semester, especially with the many digital options available to us.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 10.45.02 PM4) The Digital Standards-based Portfolio – Speaking of digital, I read about this example on Andrew Campbell’s blog. It is one vision of a future approach to portfolio assessment. With this approach, the student is creating artifacts that demonstrate learning as it relates to one or more standards.  The teacher works with the students to refine and improve upon their work and the work is added to the digital portfolio under the appropriate standard.  The students may be asked to write or audio record some comments about the artifacts and what they learned through each of them.  The teacher will add some narrative feedback as well.  This continues through the year as students build new artifacts that serve as documentation of learning. Near the end of a term, the teacher works with each student to identify a collection of best work and the student writes up a self-assessment.  Once more, the teacher might add comments.  Progress is clear because earlier work is available for comparison.  This might be set up so that parents can view or even be notified when a new artifact or comment is added to the portfolio.  Parents might also be able to add comments.

Screen Shot 2013-09-12 at 10.45.09 PM5) Narrative Report Cards  – This is an approach that can supplement a more traditional report card or a standards-based report card. In a few instances, it might even be used as the entire report card. It focuses upon just what it sounds like, more lengthy narrative, rich descriptions of the learner’s progress and performance. This allows a high level of personalization and it adds a qualitative approach to assessment that is often missing from other methods.  As learners develop meta-cognitive skills, these narratives give the learners clearer direction about what they are doing and how they can progress in certain areas. For more information, here is a concise and helpful essay called The Value of Narrative Assessments and Report Card Comments.

There are plenty of other possibilities, and many other models that schools and home-based learning environments are using. From my perspective, the key is for the assessment to provide value and adequate detail. The goal is to encourage and guide students toward ongoing learning. It should be something that speaks to what learners do and do not know, as well as what they are able to do. We are seeking clear, substantive, focused feedback.

If you have used, read about, or experienced other promising approaches, please consider sharing them in the comment section.




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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is a President of Goddard College, author, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, and Adventures in Self-Directed Learning. He is passionate about futures in education; leaner agency, educational innovation, and social entrepreneurship in education.