Should Report Cards Impersonally Judge Students’ Personal Qualities?

Published July 10, 2017

When they have the power to do so, parents choose a child’s school on the basis of such varied criteria as safety, discipline, moral values, curriculum, and the availability of extracurricular opportunities.

The template for report cards hasn’t cracked many lists of top concerns.

That soon may change.

Traditional report cards grade children from A to F on their English, math, science, history, and other courses.

Comments on the child’s mental outlook have come in the form of typically kind handwritten notes from Miss Jones, 5th-grade teacher, striving to be truthful yet tactful. Here’s a sampling of actual teachers’ comments about different kids compiled by TeachNet.

Johnny (or Janie) “is continuing to grow in independence” … “has a sense of humor and enjoys the stories we read” … “is a steadfast, conscientious worker” … “has great potential and works toward achieving it” … [or, when a teacher wants to apply a nudge in a better direction:] “needs to actively participate in classroom discussions” … “does not put enough time into assignment” … “needs to improve respect for others” … “makes little effort when not under direct supervision.”

Certainly, such observations are not the final word on any child’s outlook on schooling. Rather, they are an invitation for parents to have additional conversations in a parent-teacher conference or other venue.

Furthermore, they are teacher-to-family comments not intended to be fed into a computer to become part of a dossier that could follow a student the rest of his or her life.

By contrast, the report cards emerging in our digitally de-personalized age are anything but family friendly. Driven by federal and foundation support for so-called social-emotional learning, a growing number of schools is rolling out report cards that systematically rate students on their so-called “soft,” or non-cognitive, skills — that is, their attitudes, traits, feelings, and dispositions.

Yes, it was cause for jokingly invoking the memory of actor John Wayne — star of True Grit, among countless other Westerns — a few years ago when the first reports emerged that government schools might start measuring students’ “grit,” or sticktoitiveness with given goals.

Now, according to Education Week, the ed-establishment’s paper of record, that is starting to happen, and not only with grit-o-meters, but also a long list of personal characteristics amounting to a good start on a psychological profile.

Montgomery County, Maryland’s report card, for instance, grades the following “Thinking and Academic Success Skills”: analysis, collaboration, effort/motivation/persistence [a long-winded way to say grit], elaboration, evaluation, intellectual risk-taking, metacognition, and originality.

Imagine a teacher trying to grade each member of a class of 30 on such personal, hard-to-quantify traits. A great deal of subjectivity would be in play. The potential for students acquiring labels would be sky-high.

Would a student become an intellectual risk-taker by disputing the alarmist thinking on climate change so routinely encouraged in public-school classrooms or by arguing that teachers unions harm students by insisting on making it easy for teachers to attain tenure and hard for schools to retain bright young teachers under the “last-hired, first-fired” dictum? More likely, such a kid would acquire the label of a “troublemaker” who fails to exhibit collaborative skills.

Ed Week reports the new-fangled report cards are supposed to increase parental involvement. How will that be possible when educratic buzzwords like “metacognition”—a student’s awareness of his own learning processes—replace plain, handwritten comments from Miss Jones?

How are parents supposed to feel when some school districts with computerized report cards direct teachers to use drag-down menus of options to select canned observations about their children?

Just think of students comparing their grit scores on playgrounds across the United States. A kid labeled as low-grit could be easy pickings for bullies.

Austin, the capital city of Texas, links the report-card marks kids receive on their “personalized learning skills” with a district-wide plan to integrate SEL completely into the traditional curriculum, according to Ed Week. That puts Austin in good standing with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which encourages states to embrace SEL.

To its credit, President Donald Trump‘s administration is doing more to boost parental choice in education than any of its predecessors. Numerous studies since the 1990s show higher levels of parental satisfaction with and involvement in schools of choice, which helps explain why choice leads to improved graduation rates and overall levels of academic achievement.

The ability to select schools issuing teacher-to-family report cards devoid of all the SEL silliness ought to be well within parental prerogatives.

In addition, the Trump administration ought to find ways to strip SEL from ESSA, along with other intrusions on family life.

[Originally Published at The Hill]