• Kathleen Donohoe

A Report Revolution

The COVID-19 pandemic provides the chance for educational reforms that will set Australian students and teachers up with a passion for life-long learning. The reverberations now provide us with the opportunity to reinvigorate the assessment and reporting policy agenda, so long stagnant and engulfed in conservative ideological conflicts. There is a real opportunity to build on the cooperative spirit that is now serving us so well to move forward with reforms that would progress us from the shadows cast by the crisis and create a growth orientated evaluation culture founded on continuous real time feedback, genuine parental engagement and student ownership, that embraces wide spread confidence created by learning, face to face, blended or online.

The world in 2020 has changed and continues to change, exponentially

The COVID-19 pandemic has fostered and forced adaptation and innovation. Educational systems across the world have had to rethink and change the way schools operate, embracing technology like never before. Teachers are already using various technologies to interact with parents and students beyond the school boundaries. They have demonstrated their capacity to respond to rapid change and emerging need by embracing online learning, mastering new technologies, and communication methodologies. In a very short period of time, governments, schools, and communities have effectively and efficiently co-created and collaborated to deliver quality learning experiences in the most challenging of circumstances.

Since the spread of COVID-19 necessitated the move from bricks and mortar schools to online environments, students have spent a substantial amount of time learning from home. In many cases, parents and carers have been heavily involved with their child’s learning. Without a doubt, there is a new appreciation, respect and understanding of the role and importance of teachers, strengthening the crucial role parents play in supporting their child’s learning. As our current circumstances have and continue to emerge, reporting policies are continually being adapted. The NSW Department of Education (2020) has created interim policy standards.

The Commonwealth has removed the current regulatory requirement that student reporting include an assessment against a 5-point scale (A to E) for each subject. The information contained in the reports must communicate details on a child’s progress and learning achievements. The changes apply to Semester 1 2020 only. ​Student reports for Semester 2 will need to be delivered using the A to E grading. 

NSW Government Policy Library, (2020)

Here was an opportunity to try something different – to encourage and allow schools to innovate and create a system of reporting more suited to the needs of parents and students in the 21st century. Sadly, our current reporting processes may not reflect the valuable learning that students have undertaken over this time. Might we assume that online learning isn’t measurable? In fact the affordances of digital provide invaluable data for measuring engagement, improvement, progress and achievement. More likely, it is because our current school reporting processes are no longer fit for purpose.

Grades have got to go!

The standardised A to E grading system was introduced by the NSW Government in 2006. Traditionally, reporting occurs twice a year using paper-based reports or online documents, aimed at communicating with parents and providing advice on achievement using the 5 point scale.

Many schools now use software applications to disseminate reports to parents but a report from 1986 and a report in 2019 look much the same. The current policy allows the use of word descriptions such as Outstanding, Thorough, Satisfactory, Basic or Limited as alternatives to A to E but there is no disguising the fact that the 5 point scale will always be confused with the grades of previous eras. No matter how much we try to explain that SOUND achievement is fine it does not suggest success as a learner or in learning.

The NSW Department of Education has tried for 14 years to explain that A to E is a standards referenced scale, describing how well a student has achieved the syllabus standards and outcomes expected at this point in time. The A to E scale is intended to provide a summary of overall achievement in relation to the standards and the comment should expand on where to next. But research from Hollingsworth, H., Heard, J., & Weldon, P. (2019) for Australian Council for Educational Research indicates,

Many parents admit paying little attention to much of the content of student reports. They often focus only on written comments, ignoring other reported information and may see reports as outdated by the time they arrive. Parents and carers want information about how students are tracking against expectations, whether they are making good progress, and what they can do to support next steps in learning.

ACER, (2019)

Much of the software developed to support digital reports allows the use of generic comments that tell parents little and are thus often disregarded as a consequence.

Reporting software is intended to reduce the time it takes to write student reports but can also reinforce the misguided notion that assessment is something that happens prior to the reporting period. This includes increased effort, time and cost in the writing, a spike in sick leave, reduced focus and / or attention, increased pressure, but most importantly a lack of alignment with what teachers know will make a difference. Our current approach to reporting incurs a heavy cost on schools.

Teachers and school leaders invest considerable effort, time and cost in the writing, proof-reading and production of twice-yearly student reports, a process that is often initiated several weeks – or even months – before reports are eventually released…One principal asked to calculate the costs associated with report writing at his primary school, with 14 classes and 345 students estimated the total cost per semester, in 2019, as just over A$99,000. 

ACER, (2019)

Clark Wight, principal of Guildford Grammar Preparatory School in Perth is clear when it comes to his view.

Reports in their current style are already redundant… we stick with this archaic system of creating silos by subject area because it’s comfortable for parents, politicians and educational administrators, but our students and our future now require that we change. 

Carmody, (2020)

The mandatory use of this grading system has not served anyone well. The scale is applied and interpreted differently across states, schools, teachers and parents. If as Masters (2013) believes,ourassessment and reporting practices communicate powerful messages about learners and learning and greatly influence how students view themselves as learners we are setting up some students to expect success and others to expect failure. How can a learner be possibly motivated to put in the effort and energy required to master new content if their report grade tells them they are a D, semester after a semester? How do they have any sense that they are progressing or not? When reports use a scale so subject to misinterpretation, so time consuming, costly and of questionable value, it is time to recognise grades have got to go.

Continuous progress leads to achievement

The most important single factor influencing learning is what the learner already knows. Ascertain this and teach … accordingly.

Ausubel, D. P. (1968)

Imagine trying to learn a new skill, say playing the guitar. A report at the end of semester grading your overall performance is not nearly as useful as regular feedback you can immediately use to improve. It is your continued progress that motivates you to learn and ultimately leads to achievement, regardless of your starting point.  The sense of success you experience as you put in the effort and master new skills motivates you to keep challenging yourself. The effective teacher will begin instruction from where the learner currently is, not where they would like the learner to be.

The research on the impact of effective feedback in improving learning outcomes is compelling. To provide effective feedback three major questions need to be asked by a teacher and/or by a student:

  • Where am I going? (What are the goals?)

  • How am I going? (What progress is being made toward the goal?)

  • Where to next? (What activities need to be undertaken to make better progress?)

The purpose of formative assessment is to provide feedback to teachers and students during the course of learning about the gap between a student’s current and desired performance, so that action can be taken to close the gap. Formative assessment provides information the teacher can use to make adjustments to instruction to better meet the needs of the learners and information the learner can immediately use to improve performance. The main purpose of feedback is to improve the student’s ability to perform tasks he or she has not yet attempted. It is the quality and timeliness of the feedback that counts. Feedback supports student learning when it:

One of the most effective strategies for building learners’ self-confidence is to assist the student to see they are making progress. 

Masters,G. (2013)

A focus on continuous progress informed by quality assessment practice is the key to improved performance and achievement.

Defining student success in terms of progress…reinforces the value of effort and persistence, fostering a growth mindset in students, which has been shown to support future success in life.

Goss and Hunter, (2015)

Getting our priorities right

Literacy and numeracy underpin learning in every subject area. While our current syllabuses describe WHAT teachers are intended to teach, they do not specify HOW to teach it, nor HOW to differentiate instruction in response to differing student needs, particularly if the literacy or numeracy demands makes it difficult for the student to access the content. The updated National Literacy and Numeracy progressions to all schools in 2020  and accompanying Plan 2 and Best Start software  are powerful diagnostic tools  teachers can use to  easily identify where a student is in terms of their literacy and progress development and plan the next steps needed for progress. Learning progressions provide a common framework for differentiating the curriculum, enabling teachers to identify the literacy/numeracy support students need to access content and inform assessment and student feedback.

The progressions do not describe what to teach; they provide a detailed map of how students become increasingly adept in particular aspects of literacy and numeracy development. Learning area content and achievement standards continue to be the focus for planning, programming, teaching, learning and assessment in relation to the Australian Curriculum. 

ACARA, (2020)

Evidence from initiatives such as Early Action for Success and the Improving Literacy and Numeracy National Partnership supports the use of learning progressions as a common reference for making consistent and reliable judgements about student achievement and progress.

There is a wealth of evidence to show that explicit and targeted teaching is key to continuous progress for all students. The Literacy and Numeracy Learning progressions assist teachers to be more explicit and targeted in their teaching. When teachers, parents, and students are included in this process encouraging and supporting their child as they work toward their short term and long term goals, we begin to harness the potential of other students, parents, and the community as partners in learning.

It is important to acknowledge The NSW Teachers Federation and Australian Education Union (2018), consider the introduction of learning progressions, along with the existing obsolete reporting practices, have caused a significant increase in teacher and principal workloads. Their concerns for workload and wellbeing are well justified. The ninth annual Principal Health and

Wellbeing Survey reveals the top two sources of stress for Australia’s school leaders are the ‘sheer quantity of work’ and ‘lack of time to focus on teaching and learning’ (Russell, Dominique, May 2020)

In simple terms, it’s time to stop and put reports in lock down.

The COVID 19 crisis has provided us with an opportunity to consider if the time and money teachers spend determining an overall grade and writing reports might be better spent providing time for teachers to working collaboratively to

  • build a shared understanding of targeted teaching and quality assessment practice through professional dialogue,

  • share expertise and processes to locate the literacy and numeracy development of targeted students,

  • develop systems for sharing information about students’ literacy and numeracy progress,

  • differentiate teaching and learning experiences to support student progress in literacy and numeracy development and

  • provide timely feedback to students and parents about the next steps in their learning

Learning progressions are used in conjunction with the curriculum. ACER is in the process of developing further learning progressions.

Such assessments can establish where learners are in their learning to differing levels of diagnostic detail. They can establish levels of attainment in a broad area of learning such as a school subject, or levels of attainment in a particular sub-area of learning. They can also drill down further, to reveal learners’ specific misunderstandings, or difficulties they are experiencing. Again, in all cases, the fundamental purpose is to establish and understand where learners are in their learning.

ACER, (2018)

Earp (2019), says that students know what they want and need to improve. They want report comments to be specific, to be personalised and targeted, and to include information on the next steps of learning. Learning progressions provide a strong basis to inform the quality feedback teachers need to find the right strategy, for the right learner, at the right point in time, at the right instructional level, using the right information so that every learner is moving forward. It is time for a complete reconception of the concept of providing feedback to, and communicating with parents, harnessing the affordances of technology, teachers and the whole learning community, providing ubiquitous access by all relevant stakeholders, across the learning lifespan. It’s time we got our priorities right.

Using technology to support assessment

Advances in technology have allowed learners, parents and the community to be more involved in their child’s learning. Parents of preschoolers have long been accustomed to receiving regular updates on their child’s learning via the Storypark app. Teachers and principals are already surpassing policy and taking on the responsibility of on time reporting and feedback to parents. This is demonstrated by teachers who are creating interactive learning blogs in partnership with students and parents, using software such as, See Saw, Class Dojo, Google Classroom and Edmodo) to provide parents with real time updates on students’ formal and informal learning. Students in middle to upper primary are creating their own blogs demonstrating their learning – from consumption to creation.

New technologies and national resources have rendered twice annual reports and grades outdated, no longer meeting the learning needs of students. The A-E current policy settings (as mandated in the Australian National Education Reform Agreement) do not effectively capture growth over time or enable students to assess their own learning, set specific goals, and plan next steps for their learning.